Skip to main content

Immigrants, Brexit, Trump and inequality

Irene Bloemraad, professor of sociology | June 24, 2016

“I’m confused,” my brother emailed me this morning. “Why is fear dictating decisions around the world? First Trump, now Brexit. I need a professor of sociology to help me understand what is going on.”

Unlike doctors or car mechanics, people rarely ask for my professional advice. Younger brothers are even less apt to ask for it, though in this case, my brother probably thought I’d have some insight since I’ve studied the politics of immigration for almost two decades.

He’ll be surprised to hear that I don’t think this is primarily about immigration.

Yes, the “leave” campaign to pull the United Kingdom out of the European Union campaigned heavily on a fear of immigrants, both hostility to those already in Britain and fear of more migration, including insinuations of millions of Turks arriving in the UK if Turkey joins the European Union.

And certainly the presumptive Republican nominee for President, Donald Trump, has campaigned heavily that “making America great again” means closing the door – and building a wall – to stop immigration, from Mexico, by those of the Muslim faith and, perhaps, from virtually anywhere and by anyone.

It is easy to call this scare-mongering. It is. But why are these anti-immigrant messages so resonant?

One reason is the feeling among working and middle-class families that they have been left behind in a globalizing world that benefits elites and in which their children don’t have a fair chance to get ahead. When the “system” seems stacked against you, it is easy to blame immigrants.

The United Kingdom has one of the worst records of intergenerational earning mobility in the Western world. Put simply, if you are born in a poor or working-class family, the chances your children will live in poverty or be working class are quite high. To put a number on it, if you are a British parent who makes 10,000 pounds less than the average income in the UK, your children will likely earn 5,000 pounds less. There is movement to the average, but not much. (In economic terms, the intergenerational earnings mobility in the UK is .5.)

The United States – along with Italy and France – join the UK as among the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries where your families’ economic situation most strongly influences your own. It is not surprising then that many Britons and Americans feel like they have been left out. Predictably, Marine Le Pen, the head of France’s far-right, anti-immigrant Front National, celebrated Brexit and has vowed to push France to do the same.

In the midst of this wave of isolationist anti-immigrant politics, the Canadian federal elections last fall stand out as a possible beacon of hope for those worried about the politics of fear. In trying to retain office for another term, Canada’s Conservative Party campaigned on anti-Muslim sentiment. In return, the head of the Liberal Party, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, committed to bringing 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada, a bold pro-immigrant move when so many want to close doors and build walls.

The Liberals won, and thousands of refugees have moved to Canada. The numbers are nowhere at the level of those who have moved to Germany, but it shows that positive political leadership, combined with optimism about the future, can carry the day.

That optimism is helped along in Canada by much greater social mobility. If your father earns $10,000 less than the average there, you will likely only earn $1,900 less than average. Canada does well in not tying kids’ future earnings to the economic situation of their parents.

It is clearly the time for political, economic and civic leaders to tackle income and intergenerational inequality so that immigrants no longer have to be the scapegoats for an economic system many feel is rigged.