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Why Biden has disappointed on immigration

There’s evidence, from studies and the real world, suggesting Biden should be cautious on immigration.

Then-candidate Joe Biden delivers remarks about white nationalism during a press conference on August 7, 2019, in Burlington, Iowa.
Then-candidate Joe Biden delivers remarks about white nationalism during a press conference on August 7, 2019, in Burlington, Iowa.
Tom Brenner/Getty Images

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Less than one year into his first term, President Joe Biden has so far disappointed one significant part of the Democratic base: immigration advocates.

As Nicole Narea explained for Vox, Biden hasn’t rolled back even some of the most criticized policies carried out by former President Donald Trump. And it’s clear Biden hasn’t prioritized immigration reform broadly, with Covid-19, the economy, and climate change all taking priority. Even as some Democrats tried, in a long-shot effort, to get immigration reform into the infrastructure and Build Back Better bills, Biden has mostly left the issue to Congress to work out.

As disappointing as this is to some progressives, there’s a political calculation behind Biden’s moves: The research suggests that immigration leads to a potentially huge political backlash, and Biden might have decided that neglecting immigration is the price he has to pay to try to get the rest of his agenda done.

A recent review of the evidence by Alberto Alesina and Marco Tabellini found that “immigrants often, but not always, trigger backlash, increasing support for anti-immigrant parties and lowering preferences for redistribution and diversity among natives.” The shift, the study concluded, seems to arise as a result of cultural, rather than economic, backlash.

Another recent study, from Christopher Claassen and Lauren McLaren, focused on immigration in European countries. They found “public backlash in the short to medium run, where mood turns negative and concern about immigration rises.”

But there was some good news for immigration advocates: As people get used to immigrants, the backlash seems to fade over one to three decades.

Of course, that good news is of little interest to Biden and the current Democratic Party. They’re interested in the next year, with the 2022 midterm elections in front of mind. And even the more optimistic study finds a public backlash in the short and medium term.

You don’t really need studies to see this in the real world, especially in recent years. Trump’s rise in 2016 was built on concerns about immigration. And as the evidence indicates, that backlash was largely cultural in nature — that’s what the warning of “taco trucks [on] every corner” was all about.

But it’s not just the US. As Europe dealt with a large influx of refugees in recent years, far-right politicians managed to take advantage of the situation to build power. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel allowed 1 million refugees into the country, the far-right AfD won enough seats to become the largest opposition party in the country’s legislature. Things ultimately worked out for Merkel and Germany, but notably only after she took steps to stop the flow of refugees and adopted some hardline rhetoric about immigration — going as far as declaring, “Multiculturalism is a sham.”

That suggests an uncomfortable possibility for many progressives: Backlash to immigration seems like a staple of most modern Western democracies.

For Democrats, this conclusion means uncomfortable questions: Is action on immigration now really worth the return of Trump or the rise of other Trump-like figures over the next two or four years? If that backlash leads to Republicans in power, would immigration reform mean less action on a host of other issues, from health care to climate change? And would immigration reform simply be repealed in that backlash scenario anyway?

This has already led some progressive leaders around the world, from Denmark to New Zealand, to take a tough stance on immigration. They appear to have decided that sacrificing one cause is worth carrying out other priorities.

The Biden administration isn’t quite into “tough on immigration” territory yet. But he’s working within a framework in which immigration has to be treated cautiously, as he tries to balance his whole agenda with campaign promises about a very divisive, volatile issue.

Paper of the week: There’s a lot of Covid-19 misinformation out there

A recent analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation confirmed there’s still a lot of misinformation about Covid-19 and the vaccines out there.

A team led by Liz Hamel surveyed Americans on their views about the coronavirus. They found that 78 percent of adults in the US have heard at least one false statement about Covid-19 (of eight surveyed) and either believe it or don’t know if it’s true or false.

A chart from the Kaiser Family Foundation analysis on Covid-19 misinformation. Kaiser Family Foundation

The researchers also found that the news sources people relied on correlated with their Covid-19 beliefs. “The share who hold at least four misconceptions is small (between 11-16%) among those who say they trust COVID-19 information from network news, local TV news, CNN, MSNBC, and NPR,” they wrote. “This share rises to nearly four in ten among those who trust COVID-19 information from One America News (37%) and Fox News (36%), and to nearly half (46%) among those who trust information from Newsmax.”

It’s not clear if right-wing media sources are fueling the misconceptions, or if people who already believe the misinformation are more likely to go to right-wing media for their news, the researchers noted.

But right-wing media, it’s safe to say, isn’t helping — with Fox News segments, for example, baselessly questioning the efficacy and safety of the Covid-19 vaccines on a regular basis.

Unfortunately, it’s not clear what the solutions to all of this are. Officials across the country, including some Republicans, have spent much of the past two years trying to counter Covid-related misinformation. Yet those efforts have clearly struggled — as shown by Kaiser’s findings.

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