When a Republican governor warned on Fox News recently that “we will be Europe within a year or two” if Joe Biden were to remain president, there were predictable quips about whether she meant Americans would soon enjoy extended life expectancy, universal healthcare, or longer summer vacations.
But Kristi Noem, the South Dakota governor whose adulation of Donald Trump has led to chatter of a possible vice-presidential nomination, was in fact referring to the number of people crossing the southern US border to claim asylum, which she called an “invasion of our country”.
The numerical comparison was way off: just over one million people arrived in Europe in 2015 at the peak of the so-called refugee crisis. There were about 2.5 million attempted irregular crossings into the United States in 2023. But when it comes to the potential political impact of unregulated migration, the parallels are impossible to ignore.
European politics have been upended by the mismanagement of the crisis nearly a decade ago, which has put far-right parties in the once unthinkable positions of winning elections and leading governments in countries from Italy to the Netherlands.
The US risks going down the same path unless lessons are drawn from Europe’s failings – and its rare successes.
Immigration is a key vulnerability for Biden going into elections in November against his expected opponent, Donald Trump. Towards the end of Trump’s presidency, encounters with migrants – the US metric which encompasses migrant apprehensions and expulsions – on the southern border hovered at around 50,000 a month. They have soared under Biden, with a record 300,000 encounters in December 2023 alone.
Trump kept asylum numbers down in part by pursuing policies that flouted human rights norms, including detaining children, and Republicans have long been proponents of tough border measures. But today many liberals and Democrats have also had enough. The New York Times ran an editorial on 3 February calling the current situation “untenable”. An NBC poll put Biden 30 points behind Trump on the issue.
Biden pushed back on the criticism on 6 February, after it became clear that a bipartisan deal on migration negotiated by Republican and Democratic Senate leaders would not pass Congress, despite containing many tough border security measures previously advocated by Republicans. “Donald Trump thinks it’s bad for him politically,” Biden told reporters at the White House. “He’d rather weaponise this issue than actually solve it.”
This is a familiar tactic in Europe, where nationalist leaders have long stoked fear to win votes rather than seek genuine solutions. Nigel Farage stood in front of a poster of non-white migrants with under the text “Breaking Point” in the run-up to the Brexit referendum. The Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has made a political career out of demonising migrants, despite Hungary being home to very few.
Conjuring an enemy is a classic autocrat tactic, but mainstream politicians across Europe keep making the mistake of shifting their own rhetoric rather than challenging divisive language. This has the effect of simply validating the narrative that there is a genuine threat. The former Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte constantly moved his policies to the right in response to a growing populist threat. In Dutch elections last year, the far-right firebrand Geert Wilders finally won the most votes.
Enforcing a country’s migration laws is common political sense, but Biden is wise to resist any temptation to mimic the fearmongering of Trump. The attraction is understandable, however, given there are no quick fixes. While measures outlined in the bipartisan deal can help, such as greater border security funding and streamlining asylum procedures, long-term solutions lie in more politically sensitive policies.
Understanding and addressing the root causes of migration is a start. The 2015 crisis in Europe was spurred by the war in Syria. People arriving at the US border, meanwhile, come from all over the world for different reasons: many are fleeing gang crime or climate change displacement in Central America; others are leaving behind high unemployment in less developed countries.
But there are parallels in potential responses. Syria’s war sent refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries. Yet as I document in my 2016 book, Cast Away, the EU provided very little humanitarian support to those countries, and conditions became so bad that the refugees had to move on again, eventually to Europe.
Many people arriving on the US border are fleeing economic and political chaos in Venezuela, and regional neighbours such as Colombia, Ecuador and Peru need support in their efforts to host a growing Venezuelan diaspora. Development aid and diplomatic clout can be leveraged across Central America too. Biden has channelled millions in humanitarian assistance to the region and focused on economic investment and trade links. But aid agencies say just 16 per cent of the required aid for Venezuelan refugees in the region was funded in 2023.
Creating more legal pathways for people to enter both Europe and the US would also ease the burden on overwhelmed asylum systems. In the US, people apply for asylum because there are few other options available to them if they want to enter the country. Yet US birth rates are declining and unemployment is at record lows, so migration offers a solution to filling the jobs and spurring the economy.
Implementing such policies, however, must be coupled with an honest conversation with citizens. Too often, the left portrays people’s concerns about migration as racism or xenophobia, further cleaving the issue along ideological lines. Making people feel like their voices are not being heard can fuel extremism, and there is a direct link between the mismanagement of migration and increasing radicalisation. On both sides of the Atlantic, there is a crisis in affordable housing, in accessible healthcare, in good quality education. Governments must commit resources to ensure systems can cope with the new arrivals and make the case for why migration can help in the long run.
There are plenty of examples across Europe of cities and governments which have resisted the lure of nationalist policies and are getting migrant integration right, including in Germany, which accepted most of the refugees arriving in Europe in 2015. Conversely, in nations such as Sweden, where far-right electoral successes have led to prohibitive migration policies, social tensions around integration have continued to build.
Hopes of a measured and reasonable debate this US election season are remote, however, given that Trump has already set the tone with comments about migrants “poisoning the blood of our country”. With most Republicans toeing Trump’s line, Biden has little chance of enacting any policies that can change what is happening on the border.
So the battle will be fought on rhetorical lines, with the thousands of people risking their lives to reach America reduced to pawns in another partisan war of words.