Part V – Populism and Anti-immigration Sentiment

What do the following dozen have in common?

Leader                            Party                                         Country

Heinz-Christian Strache   Freedom Party                           Austria

Tomio Okamura              Freedom and Direct Democracy Czech Republic

Rasmus Paludan              Stram Kurs (Hard Line)             Denmark

Marine Le Pen                 National Rally                            France

Jörg Hubert Meuthen       Alternative for Germany (AfD)  Germany

Viktor Orbán                   Fidesz Party                               Hungary

Matteo Salvini                 Northern League (Lega Norm)  Italy

Geert Wilders                  Party for Freedom                      Netherlands

Mateusz Morawiecki        Law and Justice Party                 Poland       

Santiago Abascal             Vox Party                                  Spain

Jimmy Ǻkesson               Sweden Democrats                    Sweden

Nigel Farage                    Brexit Party                               UK

Donald Trump                 Republican                                 USA

They are all far-right anti-immigrant populist parties, though, in the U.S., Donald Trump did not create or lead a far-right party but launched and won a hostile takeover of the venerable Republican Party. The above all share a number of other features. They are all nationalists and Eurosceptics. The leaders run on platforms that identify with the “ordinary” voter in opposition to economic and political elites. Most often they are virulently anti-Islam and usually racists. They claim to want to achieve power to protect the traditional identity of the nation. They are attracted to the politics of strongmen and have a particular affinity with Vladimir Putin. They also tend to want to suborn the judiciary to popular will and are both critical of the intelligence services of their own country and very critical of mainstay journalism. A propensity of at least some of them to corruption is a less well-known feature of these far-right parties. They practice a wide variety of strategies to take power in which the hostile takeover, as in the U.S., is rare. Usually they will cooperate with centre-right parties to gain legitimacy. In Poland and Hungary, they formed the government.

David Frum’s thesis that the rise of far-right parties can be correlated with large scale immigration seems to be backed by considerable evidence, especially since in Portugal, the far-right has not gained a toehold and Portugal has very low levels of immigration into the country. The National Renovator Party there is very marginal. However, why is it that in a country like Canada with a relatively very high intake of immigrants and refugees, there has been no equivalent rise in anti-immigrant populism. In this regard, Canada is closer to Portugal at the opposite end of the migrant intake numbers.

Frum also has support for his claim that the far-right increasingly appeals to the young, though the backbone of their support comes from older white males. The irony, of course, is that anti-immigrant feelings tend to run highest in regions with the fewest immigrants, in particular, rural areas and smaller urban centres. Further, Frum contends that decreased mobility within a country can be correlated with increased immigration since migrants tend to relocate in large urban areas where they put an upward pressure on housing prices and reduce the supply. They also provide competition for wage earners at the lower end of the spectrum, depressing wages and effectively “forcing” many out of the workforce. Thus, the economic benefits of immigration go first to the immigrants themselves and second to those in the upper-earning range since: a) they can employ lower-priced workers to perform services for them; and b) the profits from an increase in the GDP largely accrue to them.

Frum also claims that immigrants place a strain on the welfare, health and even educational sectors. Many claim that anti-immigrant sentiment is not triggered primarily by nativism, but by the conviction that immigrants are foreign moochers who create a stress on the social assistance programs. However, with respect to welfare, this is NOT the case in Canada. There is a qualification. Refugees who gain asylum in Canada or who are sponsored by government, use social assistance at a far higher rate than native born Canadians and, after four years in Canada, the rate of social assistance is about four times the rate of native born. And these figures exclude the large costs of running a refugee asylum program estimated at 400 million.

The opposite is true of immigrants. Fewer immigrants use welfare than the native-born according to studies by Tracy Smith-Carrier and Jennifer Mitcael. Interesting enough, this is even true of the United States which does not generally select nearly as high a percentage of immigrants based on skills and educational achievements. Further, since immigrants in Canada have higher participation rates in the job market and at relatively higher income levels, they contribute more through taxes to the social assistance system. In contrast, Frum claims that, “Under the present policy favoring large numbers of low-wage earners, the United States is accumulating huge future social-insurance liabilities in exchange for relatively meager tax contributions now.” Further, in contrast to Canada, they lower the average skill level in the population.

This reinforces the point that David Frum and I have made that the problem is not immigration, per se but the orderly management of an immigration program. Further, Frum is correct that “immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than the native-born” and are less likely to abuse alcohol and drugs and, in the U.S., to own a firearm. But the major difference between Canada and the United States is that, “more and more of the people who live among Americans are not on equal legal footing with Americans.” This is not generally the case in Canada.

If it is rational for both Canada and the U.S. to embrace a positive immigration program, if, as David Frum writes, “Immigration offers Americans access to a wider range of human talent, if immigration offers immigrants a chance at a better life, if a positive immigration system is grounded in American history and relied upon by the American economy, why would not such a system enjoy widespread support? The birth rate among native-born Americans has generally been below the replacement level since the early 1970s—meaning that some amount of immigration is indispensable to simply keeping the population stable.” Why then is there such a negative and anti-immigration populist backlash?

I suggest four reasons:

  • Ignorance
  • Irrationality
  • Irresponsibility
  • Ineptness.


  • Errors of facts, whether re crime, drain on welfare, health costs and a host of other impacts of the migration system.


  • Measures proposed, such as separating parents from children or building a wall, are not only costly and cruel, but counterfactual since these claims and methods are intended to deter but the numbers have increased.
  • The contradiction between deploring illegals in the U.S. while the Trump golf courses employ undocumented migrants in significant numbers.
  • It is necessary to distinguish among those who cross borders illegally (the smallest share), those who cross to claim asylum and, because of long delays, become part of the “illegal” immigrant population in the U.S. since they have not been granted any legal status, and those who arrive legally on student or work visas and overstay the time on their visas – these perhaps constitute the majority of illegals.
  • David Frum suggests that the migration system in general is irrational since it is based on a category mistake – asylum seekers may also be immigrants seeking a better life; however, this is not a case of fuzzy labels which leak into one another; the category of refugee was never intended to exclude economic improvement as a motive. Further, the category of immigrant conveys a voluntary choice rather than a forced exit driven by persecution as well as a desire for economic improvement. Refugees are migrants; most migrants are not refugees.
  • The migration patterns have their own irrationality; as Frum points out correctly, as violence decreased substantially in Central America, the numbers migrating increased rather than decreased as many expected; but the reasons are not too hard to find; the insecurity remained at high levels while the opportunities to leave increased.
  • David Frum suggests that, “A smaller immigration intake would dramatically slow the growth of the foreign-born share of the population, better shielding democratic political systems from extremist authoritarian reactions.” This is akin to insisting that if there were less Jews around, there would be fewer antisemites and, therefore, diminish the challenge to human rights and democracy. Further, as the case in Canada indicates, the challenge to democracy does not arise from the percentage of foreign-born in a country, but from those who object to foreign-born even if there were none in the country. For the latter, one is too many.
  • The willingness to punish migrants but not the employers who hire them.
  • The above suggests that commentators tend to displace the problem on the victims rather than the perpetrators when the problem in the end is not the immigration system, no matter how badly it is organized, but the populist anti-immigrant nationalist ideologues who simply pick up support when the system is fractured. Immigrants are not the source of a lack of cohesion in the body politic; those who ride the political waves on surf boards of divisiveness are.


  • Whenever a country prioritizes one category over another – family reunification over economic migrants in the U.S. – the system is irresponsible with respect to some group, in this case, the economic self-interests of American citizens in general even as it helps citizens or permanent residents who have children, a spouse or parents being sponsored; in contrast, in Canada, the immigration system is biased in favour of the self-interest of Canadians versus family members wanting to bring relatives to Canada.
  • Trump has now reduced the intake of refugees into the United States to its lowest point in the post WWII era – 35,000 – when Canada, a country with one-tenth the population, admits more; the American policy is irresponsible with respect to burden sharing, though it has to be added, when compared to adjacent countries receiving refugees, both Canada and the U.S. are derelict, only America is much more irresponsible than Canada.
  • Just because it is much cheaper in the short run to feed and house people in refugee camps in contrast to the costs of resettlement, the costs of resettlement are recovered through taxes in a reasonable length of time, about ten years now, and the refugees become contributing members as part of the productive world economy, while refugees warehoused in camps, whether in Dadaab or Palestinian refugee camps, cost much more over the long term.


  • The asylum processing system is so dragged out that, even though most applicants are refused asylum, the application process becomes a route to enter the undergound network of illegal migrants in the U.S.; the U.S. invests enormous sums in tracking down illegals and deporting them instead of resourcing the asylum claims process to ensure both speed and fairness, a move that would perhaps be the biggest deterrent to those with weak asylum claims.
  • The gross failure in dealing with illegals who are well established in America, very often have American-born children and have no criminal record or “Dreamer” children brought to the U.S. at a young age who have been brought up as Americans.

In sum, the issue is not numbers. The issue is to some degree the mix and America has it wrong. More importantly, the issue is good management in all lanes of an immigration system. Most of all, the self-interest of populists compound the problems and make the system even more unworkable rather than less. It is not the immigration system, however, faulty, that should be blamed, but the populist anti-immigrants who play a very large part in making an immigration system unworkable.

With the help of Alex Zisman


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