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Absurd Lines: Part II

What motivates anti-immigration voters?


This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from Inkstick Media and The World. Subscribe here.

On June 27, a city worker in San Antonio heard a plea for help from inside a parked truck. Upon opening the truck, the rescuer found a grisly scene: bodies, packed in tight, cooked in the heat. It would take a day to get the total death toll: 51 migrants had died inside that vehicle or from their injuries shortly after. Some people survived, though their fates remain uncertain, with difficult medical recovery ahead for some and the specter of likely deportation looming over all.

On the 27th, before the full death toll was known, Texas Governor Greg Abbott tweeted, “At Least 42 People Found Dead Inside Truck Carrying Migrants In Texas. These deaths are on Biden. They are a result of his deadly open border policies. They show the deadly consequences of his refusal to enforce the law.”

Abbott has the cause of death wrong on its face: If borders were open, people would not pay to be smuggled into the United States and endure the conditions from which these dozens died. But Abbott was not making a statement of fact. Instead, he reinforced a core ideology of the xenophobic right: people against immigration will prioritize it over those in favor.

Abbott has the cause of death wrong on its face: If borders were open, people would not pay to be smuggled into the United States and endure the conditions from which these dozens died.

Do Anti-immigration Voters Care More? Documenting the Issue Importance Asymmetry of Immigration Attitudes” is a forthcoming paper in the British Journal of Political Science by Alexander Kustov. It makes the case that the opposed voters are more motivated even in moments when there appears to be greater support for immigration, like the 2020 US presidential election.

A year before the Brexit referendum in the UK, writes Kustov, “73% of the British public wanted to decrease immigration while only 6% wanted to increase it.” Of those voters, 26% thought restricting immigration was the most important issue; a year later, that number would be 35%. Writes Kustov, “compared to pro-immigration voters, anti-immigration voters care more about immigration in particular — not politics in general.”

This trend is observed in detail across both the United States and the United Kingdom, and over time, and it shows up in data on voter preferences in other countries. While this difference feels obvious in elections like the 2016 presidential and the Brexit referendum, the same asymmetry repeats in contests like the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, where it was less salient for all voters.

Kustov notes that there are many anti-immigrant coalitions, but “there is no known political context in which a plurality of voters wanted to increase immigration and thought it was more important than other issues.” One possible avenue for future study would be Canada, where a deliberate “third force” policy of attracting immigrants outside the French and Anglo-settler traditions was seen as a way to moderate and sustain the country’s multicultural identity.

A political coalition that includes pro-immigrant factions should know that extreme, high-profile action on the border only mobilizes their reactionary opposition. Moreover, harsh border policies give the Abbotts of the world grim spectacles to campaign against. Benign neglect removes the spectacle and eases the burden on immigrants, too.

Kelsey D. Atherton


Kelsey D. Atherton is a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the author of Inkstick's weekly newsletter, Critical State. His reporting has appeared in Popular Science, C4ISRNET, and The New York Times.


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