Posted on July 11, 2023

The Global Immigration Backlash

David Leonhardt, New York Times, July 11, 2023

The global migration wave of the 21st century has little precedent. In much of North America, Europe and Oceania, the share of population that is foreign-born is at or near its highest level on record.

In the U.S., that share is approaching the previous high of 15 percent, reached in 1890. In some other countries, the immigration increases have been even steeper in the past two decades:


This scale of immigration tends to be unpopular with residents of the arrival countries. Illegal immigration is especially unpopular because it feeds a sense that a country’s laws don’t matter. But large amounts of legal immigration also bother many voters. Lower-income and blue-collar workers often worry that their wages will decline because employers suddenly have a larger, cheaper labor pool from which to hire.


The political left in both Europe and the U.S. has struggled to come up with a response to these developments. Instead, many progressives have dismissed immigration concerns as merely a reflection of bigotry that needs to be defeated. And opposition to immigration is frequently infused with racism: Right-wing leaders like Marine Le Pen in France traffic in hateful stereotypes about immigrants. Some, like Donald Trump, tell outright lies.

But favoring lower levels of immigration is not inherently bigoted or always right-wing. The most prosperous large countries in Africa, Asia and South America tend to have much smaller foreign-born shares of their population. Japan and South Korea make it particularly difficult for foreigners to enter.


With today’s left-leaning and centrist parties largely accepting of high levels of immigration, right-wing parties have become attractive to many voters who favor less immigration. The issue has fueled the rise of far-right nationalist parties in France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Finland and elsewhere, as Jason Horowitz of The Times explained in a recent article. Jason focuses on Spain, another country where the anti-immigration party is growing.

The latest case study is the Netherlands. The governing coalition there collapsed on Friday after centrist parties refused to accept part of the conservative prime minister’s plan to reduce migration. Rather than alter his plan, the prime minister, Mark Rutte, dissolved the government, setting up an election this fall.

Rutte, notably, is not a member of the far right. He is a mainstream Dutch conservative who has tried to marginalize the country’s extremist anti-immigrant party. Yet he came to believe that reducing immigration was “a matter of political survival” for his party, my colleagues Matina Stevis-Gridneff and Claire Moses reported.