Many major political changes over the last few years are related to immigration. From the rise of Eurosceptic political parties in Germany, France, Italy, and elsewhere, to Brexit, and the U.S. election of Donald Trump, many political commentators are blaming these populist and nationalist political surges on unaddressed anti-immigration sentiment among voters. Although anti-immigration opinions certainly have a role to play in those political upsets, voter feelings of chaos and a lack of control over immigration are likely more important.
President Trump focused his campaign on the “build the wall” chant that capitalized on the perception of chaos at the southwest border where the worst from Mexico were supposedly crossing. His campaign platform called for cutting legal immigration, mandating universal E-Verify, and many of the other bells and whistles demanded by restrictionists over the years, but “reduce legal immigration” never became a chant because it doesn’t play on the perception of immigration chaos that fueled his political rise.
The theory is that the perception of greater chaos and less control over immigration leads to opposition to immigration, even the legal variety, and greater political support for harsh repressive methods. Images of Syrians arriving by the boatload and illegal immigrants scaling border walls or walking through the desert spread the perception that immigration is out of control and that crackdowns are needed to regain control. Consequently, few people want to liberalize immigration when there’s a crisis.
As long as many people perceive chaos at the border then anti-immigration appeals will have an effect greater than the share of nativists in the electorate, as I wrote about here. The key idea here is “perception.” The number of people crossing the border illegally is down dramatically since the Bush years, the Border Patrol is much larger, homicide rates on the border are down, but those trends don’t seem to matter so long as the perception of chaos remains.