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The Fog of Immigration

Throughout the West, millions of voters have formed negative opinions of immigrants, which populist politicians have exploited to make unprecedented electoral inroads. But there is a gap between the reality of immigration and the perceptions of it.

CAMBRIDGE – If France were to give the United States the Statue of Liberty today, one wonders if Americans would still embrace the spirit of its inscription: “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Given the divisiveness of immigration-policy debates in the US, one suspects that many Americans would prefer to slam shut “the golden door.” 

After all, plans to build a full-fledged wall on the border with Mexico have polarized Americans. The US Supreme Court has now upheld the president’s executive order barring travel from certain predominantly Muslim countries (plus North Korea and Venezuela), after lower courts struck down earlier versions for their religious animus. And throughout the summer, headlines have been filled with haunting accounts of migrant children being torn away from their parents at the US-Mexico border and held in cages. 

The situation in Europe hasn’t been all that different. The United Kingdom’s bid to withdraw from the European Union was fueled largely by the promise of ending the free movement of people and “taking back control” of the country’s borders. And since 2015 – when one million refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East arrived in Europe – images of migrants corralled in holding areas and drowning at sea have regularly dominated the news cycle in Europe.