Does Immigration Spark Nativism?

Stephanie Czekalinski

Amid the economic chaos engulfing Europe, the far right recently flexed its muscles in two of the continent’s most contentious elections, emphasizing immigration - legal or otherwise - as a political issue.

In the U.S., state-level immigration controls like those passed in Arizona in 2010 have become a darling issue of some on the political right, but the extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric that has characterized the rise of nativism in France and Greece has largely been absent so far.

Nativism and mass immigration are related, according to a recent study by the Migration Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank. But the connection is complex.

An increase in the number of immigrants in a particular area doesn’t necessarily translate into  an increased political support for radical-right parties, and it’s unclear whether right-wing rhetoric necessarily spills over into violence, the center reported.

When immigration becomes a political issue it can help nativist candidates. But those candidates have not been especially successful in the United States or Europe, the report said.

However, in Greece, the rising extreme right party Red Dawn, boldly embracing an anti-immigration platform, earned nearly 7 percent of the popular vote this month in parliamentary elections. That equates to 21 of 300 seats. In 2009, the party garnered only 0.23 percent of votes.

The U.S. has a long history of immigration, but only minor political parties, such as the American Constitutional Party, promote an openly nativist agenda on a federal level, according to the report.

The report names NumbersUSA and the Federation for American Immigration Reform as among the most powerful nativist voices in the country. Their ability to connect to mainstream media and politicians  allows them to wield political influence, in some cases by providing technical support to state legislatures to draft bills that would curtail immigrant rights.

In the U.S. nativism has made its mark in states like Arizona, which passed a controversial immigration more than two years ago bill seeking to force illegal immigrants out of the state. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on whether parts of that law are constitutional later this year.

Nativist political parties have become part of the governments in Italy, Poland and Switzerland in the last decade, where they have influenced policy,  particularly on immigration.

While nativists in North America and Europe may have been successful in tightening immigration laws, they have lost the big battle, the report says.

Europe - particularly Western Europe - and North America are increasingly multiethnic.