October 19, 2016 | By Sara McElmurry

The Antidote to Anti-Immigrant Populism Isn’t Walls and Registries

Terre Haute, Indiana, USA, and Boston, Lincolnshire, UK, are both home to roughly 60,000 people. And as of late, a growing percentage of each town’s population is coming from abroad.

Yet the arrival of some 2,000 immigrants in Terre Haute from 2000 to 2010 and the 479 percent increase in immigrants in the UK's Boston since 2001 appears to have stirred discontent even as it served as an economic lifeline for both communities—with cities like Boston turning out for Brexit and 64 percent of the vote in Terre Haute’s county going to Donald Trump.

Fanning the flames of nationalism thus appears to have won short-term traction with pitchfork populists on both sides of the Atlantic—but will this strategy of marginalization and alienation eventually backfire? Political leaders interested in winning the long game should be mindful of the evidence in favor of embracing immigrants and inclusion.

Roots of Angst

"Today's immigrants criticize everything and they want to change the country,” says Terre Haute farmer Brenda Wilson. “Christianity is under threat.”

"I stand in the playground and all I hear is Polish," says Sabrina Reall, who works at a Boston, UK, bar.

What is driving anxiety around immigration isn’t the immigrants themselves so much as the change they represent.

The rise of anti-immigrant populism in towns such as Terre Haute and Boston illustrates how immigrants are least welcomed—and most feared—in places where their presence is a new phenomenon. Contrary to conventional wisdom, anti-immigrant populism isn’t solely related to economic angst. Though the notion that immigrants steal jobs and pilfer welfare stubbornly persists on both sides of the Atlantic—despite ample evidence to the contrary—closer examination reveals a disconnect between economic woes and anti-immigrant sentiments. Despite their working-class reputation, Trump supporters’ median household income is $72,000, a healthy cut above the national median of $56,000. And in the UK, half of Leave voters said they had not experienced any economic impact from EU immigration. Boston has an unemployment level that hovers at 2 percent, lower than the UK’s rate of 5.5 percent.

With the foreign-born increasingly eschewing diverse cities such as Chicago and London, racially and ethnically homogenous towns such as Terre Haute and Boston are confronting a new reality. In 1990, 75 percent of the US immigrant population was concentrated in just six states: California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Texas. In 2010, that proportion was down to 65 percent, with the remainder settling beyond traditional gateways, including rural counties across the country. The same trend is true in the UK: A decade-old infographic from the UK’s Telegraph maps the “new migration hotspots” in rural towns and villages outside of urban cores.

This shift, coupled with a decline in native-born population in many areas of both countries propels the perception that even modest numbers of foreign-born are overtaking these communities. In the UK, the public grossly overestimates the number of Muslim residents. The actual proportion is 5 percent of the population; the public perceives it to be 21 percent. Terre Haute’s native-born report feeling “besieged” by Muslims—0.33 percent of the city’s population—wearing veils and robes.

Fear of change explains the paradox of anti-immigrant sentiments running highest in places with few immigrants. Research from Gallup indicates that Trump supporters are clustered in racially isolated zip codes, holdouts of a demographic shift that will make white Americans a minority by 2040. The UK’s Boston, before its immigration uptick, was 98.5 percent “White British,” according to a 2001 Census. Across the UK, a Leave vote came from 94 percent of the places that had experienced an increase in immigration of at least 200 percent between 2001 and 2014.

Research tells us that today’s immigrants are assimilating into society as quickly as—if not quicker than—previous generations of newcomers. Yet rapid demographic change can overwhelm communities without the appropriate social infrastructure, particularly schools and other government institutions. A full 62 percent of UK Boston’s student body now comes from migrant families, and many have limited English proficiency.

Models of Integration

The antidote for this anxiety, ironically, is more immigrants—and a social infrastructure to support their transition into new communities. Places with established immigrant communities aren’t as prone to anti-immigrant populism as their more homogenous neighbors. The likelihood of finding a Trump supporter actually decreases with proximity to the US-Mexico border. And London, a city that is nearly 40 percent foreign-born, overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU.  

Immigrant integration is a two-way street. The work—and the returns—correspond to newcomers and receiving communities alike. Places with large concentrations of foreign-born have lower levels of crime than those without these residents; law enforcement cite these communities as key allies in tackling terrorism. The foreign-born are twice as likely to start businesses as their native-born counterparts, a reality that offers tax revenues and employment benefits for receiving communities. Immigrants eventually offered the opportunity to naturalize earn 50-70 percent more than noncitizens, have higher employment rates, and less likely to live below the poverty line.

Local governments, ground zero for demographic change, understand the need for inclusion and are early adopters of integration programs. The US Midwest, motivated to offset its declining demography, has seen incredible momentum in city-level immigrant integration efforts. Mayors of 18 US cities, many of them in the Midwest and Rust Belt, have petitioned the White House to resettle more Syrian refugees. And Boston, for its part, recently released a 28-point plan to manage social change.

Missed Opportunities for Inclusion

Despite this evidence, both the United States and UK lack a comprehensive federal strategy for integrating newcomers. What could be a productive policy platform has been remarkably absent in a US election dominated by talk of walls and mass deportation. And a post-Brexit UK seems determined to further alienate its foreign-born, with a proposal that would mandate employers to maintain registries of foreign workers.

But will the likely negative economic consequences of Brexit and the likely defeat of Trump mean the rise of populism in 2016 is an aberration or the beginning of a long-term trend?

Only time will tell. But already one needs to look no further than the fractured GOP and Tory parties to understand the costs of alienating instead of embracing newcomers. Government has little to gain by marginalizing a growing part of countries' demography.

The Council on Global Affairs is hosting a symposium on the rise of populism on October 24. Click here to register or watch the live stream.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.


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