How to Defuse Nativism in America: A Conversation with Justin Gest
It needs to address legitimate anxieties about immigration while isolating racist concerns
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Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to ReImagining Liberty, a project of The UnPopulist. I'm Aaron Ross Powell, and this is a show about the emancipatory and cosmopolitan case for radical social, political, and economic freedom.
Immigration has meant that America's demographics throughout the whole of the nation's history have been in constant flux. Today, the percent of the population that's foreign-born is the highest it's ever been. We're headed over the next couple of decades to a majority-minority status. This is all good news for the country in terms of our dynamic economy and culture, but it's also led to a significant social and political backlash, the rise of nativism, and a decided turned reactionary populism among Republicans.
I'm joined today by Justin Gest, an associate professor at George Mason University, and an author of a number of fascinating books digging into these critical issues. His latest is Majority Minority from Oxford University Press.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for flow and clarity
Aaron Ross Powell: America has had a turbulent political environment over the last 10 years at least. A lot of that seems to be driven by worries about immigration and worries about demographic change. Maybe we start there. What is happening demographically in America?
Justin Gest: Turbulent is I think the understatement of the week, Aaron. Demographically what is happening in the United States is on the one hand completely ordinary and mundane, but on the other hand anomalous and extraordinary. It just depends on your outlook. The most hyperbolic way of looking at things is that the foreign-born population of the country has reached about 14% of our national population in the United States. That is about as high as it has ever been in the nation's history. The last time it approximated this was close to the turn of the 20th century, a very long time ago. Another period when we witnessed a lot of political turbulence and nativism.
“The foreign-born population of the country has reached about 14% of our national population in the United States. That is about as high as it has ever been in the nation's history. The last time it approximated this was close to the turn of the 20th century, a very long time ago. Another period when we witnessed a lot of political turbulence and nativism.”
We are also approaching what has been dubbed a “majority-minority” milestone demographically, where people of ethnic and racial minority backgrounds are approaching a milestone in which in about 20 years they might be of equal population size and share to white people in the country. Again, depending on how you define those boundaries, but nevertheless this is the way that the US Census Bureau thinks of race and ethnic differences. Those are pretty extraordinary milestones. The highest foreign-born population historically, and this momentous demographic milestone.
On the other hand, why is this mundane? Well, first, there are many other countries that are way beyond 14% foreign-born today. Not just historically but right now. Switzerland, Canada, Australia, all of which are democracies are in the high 20s or even approaching 30% foreign-born. I think Canada's actually slightly lower. I think they may be in the mid-20s now.
Then you have other countries that are not democratic, but that are near 90% foreign-born like Qatar and the UAE, (the United Arab Emirates) in the Middle East region. Now, that's a bit of apples and oranges because the immigrants who are coming into those countries don't have the same access to social, civil, and political rights as they do in democracies. Nevertheless, 14% is dwarfed by what we are seeing elsewhere in the world.
From the perspective of the majority-minority milestone, in some ways this is a story of American demographic history because we've also been there before too. The real difference is just that the definition of whiteness has changed. If we keep the definition of whiteness from the 19th century, which really only saw white people as those who were from Northern Europe and Protestant backgrounds, we've been a majority-minority country for a century, but we've simply extended the idea of whiteness to incorporate Italians or the Irish or Jews or Slavs or Greeks.
These demographic milestones are in the eyes of the beholder. The fact that they're disputed in such a way really contributes to the politics and the sense of anxiety and discomfort around them.
Aaron: You said the tipping point to majority-minority is 20 years off. American demographics have been shifting for as long as we've been a country. We have different immigrant groups come and go, the changing definitions of whiteness. Why has it seemed to suddenly become the driving issue of much of American politics? Trump's initial rise began with a speech about Mexican criminals coming across the border. Fear of demographic change was core to his message and the message of the broader populist movement on the American right. We're at this higher number, but that number in terms of percent of the country that is foreign-born has been ticking up over time. Is there something that suddenly caused a flashpoint? Was there just a tipping point there?
Justin: I don't think that there was a tipping point, but I do think that immigration epitomizes what has become the fulcrum of partisan differences in the United States. That is, our parties do not disagree so much or their disagreements are less about left and right ideologies. In some cases, particularly on the right, they're incredibly ideologically inconsistent now because they disagree more on the orientation of open versus closed.
Openness refers to an openness to global trade. Openness refers to perhaps levels of transparency. Openness can refer to certainly as relates to immigration and openness to differences in social norms and values and morals. Closed can refer to the priorities given to heritage and religious backgrounds and norms. Closed can refer to global trade. Closed can refer to immigration, et cetera. Immigration really embodies that difference, that orientational difference of open versus closed that really I think best encapsulates the difference between the left and right in American politics today.
That isn't necessarily the fulcrum of our politics because, goodness knows Americans are disagreeing on a variety of other matters, whether it's abortion these days, climate change, what to do about inequality, access to healthcare, all of these are major issues and sources of disagreement among American constituencies. Immigration is a proxy battle in a grander dispute between political parties. As a result, it is a litmus test for your partisan preferences.
“Immigration epitomizes what has become the fulcrum of partisan differences in the United States. That is, our parties do not disagree so much, or their disagreements are less about left and right ideologies. In some cases, particularly on the right, they're incredibly ideologically inconsistent now because they disagree more on the orientation of open versus closed.”
Aaron: Part of this is a fear of difference. Things are changing, the people—When I look around the country, the people in it look different than what I'm used to or than the people who are immediately near me or in my small community and so on. Is this about foreignness which is what we've been talking about, that we're 14% foreign-born?
Is it about ethnicity and culture, so these people come from places where suddenly I might hear people speaking a different language than me, or they're attending a different kind of religious service than I'm used to, or so on, or is it about race? That their skin color is different? I don't mind immigrants from places where they look like me, but I have a problem with places where they don't.
Justin: I think that these possibilities are in many ways inextricable from each other. It certainly depends on the voter that you're speaking to at the moment. They may press on the salience of one component or another. One of the things that you haven't mentioned is legality. Many voters when prompted, discuss their disillusionment with the American immigration system because we tolerate so much unauthorized entry and visa overstays and that we are not actively enough removing immigrants who violate the terms of their entry.
Even that, I think is also inextricable from the fact that the people we're discussing are from foreign places and have different complexions and potentially social norms and cultural values, at least, or are perceived to have differences in those ways. I think they are all very much interrelated. Certainly, there have been some studies that have tried to piece this apart and pull apart these different strands of logic. The general conclusion is that cultural threat is a major component of that, and that is absolutely related to racial and ethnic differences among immigrants.
It also relates I would say, quite inextricably to class because there's also a perception that immigrants are not bringing skills or entering into highly skilled work in the country in ways that could advance the economy and fill certain labor shortages. They see immigrants in many cases as not being the best and the brightest from their home countries, even though there's enormous amounts of evidence that actually disputes that and actually proves it wrong, that it's baseless actually. Not only do immigrants bring enormous amounts of skills that we need but they do so at all kinds of levels of skills, in terms of educational credentials.
The baselessness of that aside, what matters I think is that even class differences or educational concerns is also inextricable from race and ethnicity, because there's a perception that those people who are coming from “Global South” countries where complexions might be darker are disproportionately coming with fewer skills. Those people are also the same ones who people perceive to be coming in with questionable legal status. Again, none of this is based on lots of verified information. It's really about perception. But of course, everyone who studies politics knows that if politics were just about facts, it would be so much easier to understand, study, and govern.
Aaron: Let me ask about that baseless real quick because I think it's an interesting conundrum, not just in this issue, but in politics in general. When someone says, “I think we should probably worry more about immigration because a lot of people are coming in illegally or overstaying their visas, or because the people who are coming in are lower-skilled and are going to need to draw higher welfare benefits, or they might be bringing additional crime or other things like that.” The person saying that is unaware of the fact that basically, they're wrong. The immigrants aren't bringing crime, the immigrants tend to be higher skilled, and so on and so forth.
The answer to it is presenting them with the actual facts. Or is it—essentially, there's a sublimation process going on where they just don't want people with different skin color. They don't want people with different languages. They're uncomfortable with difference, but they know saying that has low social desirability, so you come up with a reason similar to when gay marriage was being debated. People came up with arguments about, "Oh, what about the children?" and so on, when it was really—those were just pretextual or those were cover for underlying more prejudicial reasons.
Justin: Principally it's the latter. Social sciences have begun studying the effect of what we would call corrections to people's views. Generally, the findings that I have seen suggest that correcting the inaccurate information that may form the basis of people's perspectives does not change their perspectives thereafter. What we're probably looking at here is motivated reasoning. People know how they feel, whether they feel a social pressure to not reveal their true intentions or their true feelings I can't speak to, but what we have seemed to find now among social science research is that correcting inaccurate information does not really change people's views.
Aaron: Let's turn to the other countries that have gone through a similar thing and have seen higher levels of foreign-born than the US. What has their experience looked like?
Justin: Well, I think that in a lot of ways it's apples and oranges because the Canadians have a very different approach to immigration policy-making and admissions. It is a country that innovated the points-based system, which is a form of what Donald Trump, I think, called merit migration. At least he's now credited with that idea because he made it, at least popularized the term. What that means is that they assign points to immigrant applicants for admission on a variety of attributes that immigrants possess, that the government has determined are valuable and if your points add up to a certain threshold, then you're admitted.
These points are given for all kinds of things. English language capabilities or French language capabilities in Canada's case, certain educational credentials, the possession of certain skills, the presence of family members already in the country. All of these things give you points that add up to someone who is determined to be qualified for admission. The vast majority of their permanent immigration is coming through these kinds of points-based tracks, which is a form of economic migration.
Canada also has a very large program of temporary labor migration. Immigrants who are not coming through the points-based system are able to gain entry on temporary visas that help shore up labor shortages and skill needs in the short run but do not commit the country to naturalizing people, to giving them citizenship or permanent residency in the long run. We have neither of these two programs. Not only do we not have the points-based system, we are not oriented towards what's called economic migration in the first place. We are unique in the world, in the United States in that approximately 65% of all permanent visas are coming through family migration tracks.
That doesn't mean that people are not economically helpful, that they don't work, that they don't have skills we need, it just means that the justification for their admission into the country is due to or driven by family sponsorship. They're reunifying with their children, with their parents, or with their spouse or they're marrying an American citizen. That's family formation.
Sixty five percent is an astronomically high share. I think the next nearest country is something in the 40s. I think Ireland, if I'm not mistaken, and even that may have changed now in Ireland. We are really unique in the world in this way that we do not prioritize economic migration, but rather actually we prioritize the family migration. The other difference is that we do not have a robust temporary labor migration program. We have a lot of temporary labor migrants, but most of them are effectively the undocumented, who proxy what a temporary labor migration program would do, except that it's completely unregulated and operating in the shadows of not only the state but of society, and is stigmatized.
Whereas in Canada, they're temporary labor migrants. It's fully above board and known by everyone completely transparently and facilitated by the state. We really govern the immigration completely differently. That's just the tip of the iceberg, there are other ways that we govern differently as well. What that has meant, Aaron, is that the perception of the Canadian public of its immigration system is also completely different. They don't see their immigration system as disorderly, as poorly managed. They don't see it as unregulated. They don't see it as chaotic.
It's worth noting of course, that they share the southern border with the United States, the richest country in the world, and not Mexico or Turkey or Bangladesh. That is a different situation when you have a very rich, industrialized country at your border that is effectively also a buffer for receiving immigrants coming from global south countries. All that aside, the effect is that Canadians do not perceive their immigration system in the same way as Americans. That has created a different relationship with people who enter into Canada because there is a perception that not only are they supposed to be there legally, but that they were selected in a competitive system to be there.
“Canadians do not perceive their immigration system in the same way as Americans. That has created a different relationship with people who enter into Canada because there is a perception that not only are they supposed to be there legally, but that they were selected in a competitive system to be there.”
There's this understanding, a base assumption among Canadians, that when they meet someone who is from India or someone who is from China, or someone who is from Ecuador, that they have passed through a rigorous system of admissions that has deemed them qualified for entry in the national interest. We don't have that assumption in the United States, because we don't have a governance system that would ground that kind of assumption.
Canadians are associated with a very multicultural approach to immigration and multiculturalism has become a trademark of Canadian identity even, as a result. Really that is the residue of a very well-governed system that has always at least attempted and sold itself as putting the national interest first. We just don't have that in the United States and so why would we expect such a residue.
Aaron: This points-based, merit-based system it creates a perception of a more orderly process and a national interest, but does it change the demographics of the kind of immigrants who are coming in? Because as we said earlier, there's a perception in the US that it's all low-skilled immigrants, but in fact, immigrants tend to be fairly highly skilled. Do our immigrants look different than Canadian immigrants in our systems?
Justin: I would be speculating. I don't want to assert something that I'm not certain of. Because what's possible is that yes, the Canadians might be selecting on educational credentials and English language knowledge upon entry through that system. The thing is that the Canadians also admit an enormous amount of refugees for their population size, and they also admit a lot of those temporary labor migrants that I mentioned earlier.
Again, this is an empirical question, so we could find out. What's possible is that the demographics may approximate the American demographics simply because they are also pulling in a lot of people who may not be as educationally credentialed. That is totally possible. Certainly through their economic admission system, yes I think it's reasonable to expect that they will be highly skilled and more educated than the average person who is coming through the permanent migration governed system of the United States.
Demographically, they're generally coming from similar parts of the world, except there'll be fewer Latinos coming into Canada. In terms of age and gender, I think that you'll probably see something that approximates each other. It's really about the system in which they're selected. Although there is a lot of evidence that suggests that economic immigration is gendered and that it skews male. Temporary immigrants also skew male.
I guess in the United States case, undocumented immigrants also skew male and that's why I'm not expecting huge gross differences between the two. Family immigration skews more feminized. You might see that difference in the United States, but I guess my point is that there are lots of different streams and tracks of entry into Canada and the United States, that diversify demographically who's coming.
Aaron: Is this then the crux of, I guess what we've done wrong regarding immigration in the US, is that we have this family-based plus more chaotic system, so if we switched to a points-based system and we had a more regulated system—call them populist concerns about immigration would evaporate?
Justin: I'm not sure that we have to have a points-based system to evaporate nativism in the country right now. You can have any system as long as it was orderly, well-managed, and conducted with the national interest in mind. I don't think that the actual design of the program is the big condition here. Personally, I think that the points-based system would be excellent in the United States.
It does not have to be at the expense of our legacy of family immigration. Many people, particularly those on the left of American politics, often straighten their spine when they hear about moving away from the family-based system. A points-based system does not need to invalidate our historic investment in reunifying families. In fact, you can maintain that, but just through a points-based design.
You could just say, you get lots of extra points if you have family already in the country and having a spouse already in the country or children already in the country or parents already in the country, could be worth an enormous amount of points such that plus a criminal background clearance, and you're in. It's just a label calling it family immigration. It's a label calling it points-based system.
Ultimately what we really ought to have is an integrated system that weighs the different attributes that immigrants offer and makes a decision that is in the national interest. You can do that while accounting for the establishment of family in the country, previous visits, language knowledge, skill possession, high education credentials, clean background checks, but also things like previous visits to the country or the extent to which someone might be in a vulnerable position.
“What we really ought to have is an integrated system that weighs the different attributes that immigrants offer and makes a decision that is in the national interest. You can do that while accounting for the establishment of family in the country, previous visits, language knowledge, skill possession, high education credentials, clean background checks, but also things like previous visits to the country or the extent to which someone might be in a vulnerable position.”
They may not necessarily qualify as a humanitarian immigrant, or as a refugee in the letter of international law, but they may be vulnerable. That could also be a way of designing a system, in which we account for vulnerability without necessarily calling people refugees. These systems are made by bureaucrats and by policymakers. They are not handed down from stone tablets on Mount Sinai. We have a say in what our policies are and we can design a much better system and if we did, our politics would look more like Canada's, certainly than they currently do.
Aaron: One of the interesting things about rhetoric with American immigration or the objections to it is—anti-immigration people often frame it as, "These immigrants are coming in and they're going to undermine American institutions. They're going to use our welfare, they're going to hurt our economy, and so on." These look like the kind of national interest concerns that you raised and said that a system like Canada can ameliorate because the immigrants have been vetted, and so there's a sense that if they're coming in, it's because they were in the national interest.
At the same time as we talked about earlier, a big driver of this is an aversion to cultural change. It seems like in a lot of cases, particularly the white working class, the core of the nativist, nationalist, populist side of American politics tends to view effectively their own culture as the national interest. That we need to preserve our Western traditional ways of living, which means Christianity and a certain kind of family structure and a certain set of values, and they identify that very deeply with the “real America.”
If that's a motivator of it, then even if these immigrants are highly skilled, are not using welfare, are not going to bring crime, they are still bringing different cultures. It would seem that problem wouldn't be addressed, but they get used almost interchangeably. The perception is that basically national interest and culture mean the same thing, if you listen to a lot of the people on the right. How do we address that? Because it doesn't seem like the system you just outlined would get at the underlying, “I don't want the culture to change” questions.
Justin: Sure. I think one thing we have to establish is that you don't have to have consensus to make policy. If what is motivating the reasoning of people on the farthest right fringes of the country is an interest in maintaining the supremacy of white people in the country, whether that is through structural advantages or demographic numbers or what have you—I don't think that we need to be so interested in persuading those people and that you probably won't persuade those people. Because they perceive an existential threat along racial lines and no one is going to endorse, at least no one certainly who's pro-immigration is going to endorse, a system that is motivated along similar lines.
What I am most concerned about is that there is a substantial number of native-born white Americans who may or may not be working class, but they are discomfited by demographic change. They are anxious about the future of the country. They may even feel a lack of belonging. They may feel like strangers in their country at times. Yet, they are not white supremacists. They are not necessarily even anti-immigration, but they are certainly discomforted and anxious about the trends that they see. Those are the folks who actually most need to be brought along. Those are the folks who can be brought along.
Many of them will have friends and maybe even family members who are foreign-born. They may have coworkers, and they may have neighbors who are foreign-born or who are from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. They may actually even be cognizant of the value that immigration brings and embrace a diversifying country in theory, but in practice, feel a sense of alienation and feel a sense of anxiety.
Those are the folks we need to be bringing on. I think that one of the critical issues among the immigrant rights movement and pro-immigration constituencies in the United States is that we conflate those anxious folks with white supremacists and with white nationalists. That has really undercut the ability of the pro-immigration movement in the United States to undertake outreach to precisely the people who I think they need to be bringing along.
If your listeners are interested in more about this, I recently published an essay just this week, with POLITICO magazine about how the expiration of Title 42 regulations at the border is a reality check for the immigrant rights movement and immigration politics in the United States more broadly. Really, the critical error that this all exposes is that our governance has been completely paralyzed.
Our policies are stuck in a political formaldehyde, precisely because the pro-immigration movement and policymakers have been unwilling and, in many cases, uninterested in trying to actually persuade people who are anxious. Anxious for reasonable reasons, not because they're racists, but because their societies are changing, and they feel unconsulted and they don't have a great relationship yet with the people who are the agents of that change. That is something that can be addressed. People would rather not address it and instead, castigate them and condemn them as racists.
Aaron: What does that outreach look like? If I'm someone who has non-racist, non-white supremacist reasons for nonetheless feeling concerned about this cultural change, feeling a little bit alienated, and you are the immigration advocate talking to me, what are you telling me to assuage my concerns?
Justin: I think that there has, up until now, been a reluctance to invoke the politics of heritage, to revere people who are rooted in the United States, among the pro-immigration movement. I'm not totally sure why, actually, because reassuring people who are native-born of their status, of their enduring status in the country of their residence, and of their ancestors is not mutually exclusive to embracing newcomers, to welcoming someone who is a foreigner. You can do both.
I do think that a lot of good can be done by incorporating a concern with heritage and reverence for people with deeper roots in the United States. I say deeper because almost everyone in this country has immigrant ancestry. That's an enormous advantage. By actually revering people with longer roots, it acknowledges that no one, however, is effectively Indigenous.
Even Native Americans themselves today are so intermarried with people of foreign origins that you were talking about maybe a couple hundred thousand Americans total that are presently claiming zero blood from someone of immigrant background. This is a very small fraction of the country. The vast majority of Americans, greater than 99% of the country, has immigrant origins. Recognizing those who have deeper roots is not inconsistent with welcoming people who are about to put down roots. I think that, rhetorically, that is important.
Secondly, I don't think that we should be so averse to the rhetoric of control. Control is basically a four-letter word in the pro-immigration movement these days, particularly in the immigrant rights movement—order, or management. These are not words that are commonly utilized. Yet again, you can have a very orderly and controlled system that doubles the amount of immigrants that we admit every year.
That is effectively what was happening in Britain after Brexit, actually, is that the government of Boris Johnson and the Tories used very robust language. I would say even offensively robust language about immigrants coming into the country and the need for control and management, but threw open the gates, effectively. Nothing about order, nothing about heritage, precludes our country from admitting more people and being more open to the arrival of foreigners. I think that those are two critical steps.
The third relates to the engagement of people across social boundaries. Our country remains stubbornly segregated. About 75% of Americans report almost no meaningful contact with someone of foreign origins today. That is remarkable, actually. Not only are we at this historic point of the share of foreign-born in the country being at 14%, but we have seen the spread of immigrants moving to the hinterland of the country now. Their distribution geographically is way beyond the classic urban coastal gateway cities of New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami.
Immigrants are everywhere now. That 75% of Americans report no meaningful relationship with someone who is foreign-born in this era tells us something about the silos that separate us from people who are different from us. That's because we are both residentially segregated and because we are not finding or facilitating enough ways for people to actually have contact.
Early research, but nevertheless research in social sciences, suggests that contact has a marginal but meaningful effect on people's views of foreigners and people across social boundaries. I think that undertaking moves that actually embrace the logic of heritage, the importance of reassuring people about control, and that facilitates contact, intergroup contact and belonging, is really critical to moving the needle.
“Immigrants are everywhere now. That 75% of Americans report no meaningful relationship with someone who is foreign-born in this era tells us something about the silos that separate us from people who are different from us. That's because we are both residentially segregated and because we are not finding or facilitating enough ways for people to actually have contact.”
Aaron: By contact, do you mean—I guess you said that 75% of people do not have meaningful—what does meaningful mean in this context? Because just passing through often might—I wonder if it would trigger people's aversion to different personality traits.
Justin: Right. There's a difference between an encounter and a relationship. Purchasing gas from someone who is across a social boundary is not a relationship. The proxy that I like to use is whether someone has shared a meal with someone who is across a social boundary. Actually, if you take a look, I advise some new polling that is often published by Axios called the Two Americas Index.
In there, they frequently asked on a monthly basis about the share of Americans that have shared a meal with people across either party lines, so Democrats with Republicans, Republicans with Democrats, or across racial lines. That number has not really been going up since we started measuring it. It's still a pretty young poll, but it's not a high number. That should and could change.
Aaron: On the status and heritage thing, my worry with what you said as a way to establish these bridges or to ameliorate some of these concerns is that status is a relative thing, and status is often a zero-sum thing. A lot of the really reactionary elements on the right that we've seen, especially under Trump, seem to be status anxiety of, I no longer see my demographic whether it's being male, whether it's being white, whether it's being native-born, as high status as it used to be, and that upsets me. If we invest native-bornness with status, does that risk creating a tiered system where immigrants are necessarily always trapped in a lower status position which as we see like an experience in Europe can itself lead to all sorts of problems?
Justin: Yes, it's a very excellent point. When I say status, I'm not referring to de facto or even de jure status, like legal status. I'm not proposing in any kind of way that there are some structural advantages granted. Really, I think the status politics of today are felt status. They're interpreted. So much of the politics of identity and culture is really about symbolism, actually. It's about do you feel valued and do you feel a sense of belonging. You don't need policy in order to render that sense of feeling, that sense of belonging, and status from that kind of perspective.
If you think about what Donald Trump did from a campaigning perspective in 2015, 2016, and then thereafter, to make White working-class people who previously felt very much on the outside looking into American politics, from both parties—what he did was incredibly cheap. It was really just rhetoric and affirming people's sense of belonging, affirming people’s status, rather than actually necessarily pairing it with meaningful policies.
Now, most of the policies that he did pair it with coming out of the Stephen Miller Wing of the White House, was not elevating the status of native-born people but rather undercutting the status of foreign-born people. It was making native-born people feel better about themselves by mistreating and in some cases, violating the rights of people who were ethnically, racially, religiously, different, and from foreign countries.
That's only a relative understanding, and of course, it worked. But it didn't actually change the actual lived status of the people they were targeting with the rhetoric—White working class, and other native-born people in the country. It is possible to suggest status and to convey it in ways that don't actually first off, hurt and undercut the rights of others, but also that don't actually provide any kind of legal differences for other people, or structural differences.
Aaron: We are heading into another round of presidential primaries and elections. It looks like this very guy who was elevating the status of the white working class by targeting and abusing immigrants is going to be on the ballot himself again. Things feel very charged. Are you at all optimistic that we can improve things in this area? We talked about this a bit on how to talk to people who are feeling alienated, but speaking to an audience of people who generally are in favor of immigration, what's your advice to us over the next couple of years?
Justin: In terms of my advice, I would return to those three suggestions I made earlier. I wouldn't change–-those are really my principal recommendations. They're definitely elaborated on in that POLITICO piece I mentioned. In terms of Donald Trump's entrance into the race and his likely nomination, things on the farther right side of American politics are unlikely to change as long as he is the standard bearer, because of the megaphone that he is able to wield and if he is endorsed as the party's nominee, then that becomes effectively a Republican position.
It's effectively non-negotiable. You're likely to see the same kind of paralysis but that doesn't mean you can't make progress from a public opinion standpoint. In fact, actually, I think that Trump's first administration—and for the sake of immigrants and American democracy hopefully his only administration—what we learned was quite instructive. He overstepped what most Americans would tolerate with regard to the treatment of immigrants, and it actually produced elevated levels of openness to more immigration into the country.
In fact, actually, the share of Americans that were supportive of increased levels of immigrants or maintaining present levels of immigrants in the country peaked underneath Donald Trump. I think it's because of two reasons. One is that he overstepped the boundaries of what people deemed to be ethical and humane treatment of other people. There's a backlash to that and saying, "Hey, look, I may be skeptical of immigration, or I may think that we're doing things wrong, but you shouldn't be separating families. You shouldn't be deporting people who don't have criminal records and spending state resources to do so. We shouldn't be halting immigration completely at our border. We still need immigrants," et cetera.
That is one dynamic. The other dynamic is that he (Trump) conveyed so much control over the border with at least initial construction of a wall and more money going towards border security, that it may have also relaxed people's concerns about immigration because they said, it's actually being managed now. That is instructive for the future. It shows what conveying order and management persuasively can do, but it doesn't have to be paired with the nativist, xenophobic, and occasionally racist innuendo that was part and parcel of Trumpism. It was nevertheless effective, at least relaxing people's concerns.
I think that Democrats and particularly the immigrant rights movement can capitalize on Trump's excesses to actually bring in new constituents into their camp, but only if they are willing to tolerate the demographic anxiety that people feel and to consult those people rather than to redline them as hopelessly racist. "These hopelessly racist people" are the ticket to comprehensive immigration reform, because they are precisely the people who are standing in the way of it right now. The country is facing what is effectively an intensity gap in public opinion.
The people who are against more immigrants coming into the country are a dwindling share of the population and voters, but they are the people who believe that this is the biggest issue facing the country. If we can turn down the radioactivity of this issue, if we can turn down the volume of the debate and reassure people, I think that that's when progress will be made.
“Democrats and particularly the immigrant rights movement can capitalize on Trump's excesses to actually bring in new constituents into their camp, but only if they are willing to tolerate the demographic anxiety that people feel and to consult those people rather than to redline them as hopelessly racist. "These hopelessly racist people" are the ticket to comprehensive immigration reform, because they are precisely the people who are standing in the way of it right now.”
Aaron: Thank you for listening to Reimagining Liberty. If you enjoy the show, please take a moment to rate and review it on Apple Podcasts. You can also join our Discord listener community and book club by following the link in the show notes. ReImagining Liberty is a project of The UnPopulist and is produced by Landry Ayres.
Great discussion. Glad that someone finally compares the Canadian and American immigration systems. That seems to highlight a big difference in governing. In Canada our motto is "Peace, Order, and Good Government" Just last week all the Premiers of the Provinces were complaining about the rise in violent crime on the streets and mass transit systems. The Federal government responded by tweaking the bail laws to make it harder for violent offenders to get bail. I'm not saying that what they did will work, but just that there is a real contrast here. The premiers complained to the Feds and the Feds responded by changing the law. In contrast in the United States the political system is in gridlock. On the Republican side it's all about performance and "rage farming". They have no incentive to actually solve the immigration problem since it works so well for them as a way of motivating their political base. This is why President George W. Bush was sabotaged by his own party when he tried to find a bi-partisan solution to immigration.
A truly interesting piece on immigration, with very useful statistics that I had not known.