Multipolarity and Connectivity
Illegal Immigration to the United States from Latin America: Polarising Effects

The heated debate surrounding the issue of Latino immigration to the United States is not only an eloquent illustration of the deepening polarisation in the country. Its context extends far beyond the migration crisis on the southern border and increasingly concerns contradictory inter-American relations and, more broadly, the prospects for the liberal democratic model of development.

The problem of immigration is the focus of attention of almost every state, since it is closely related to issues of citizenship, national identity, the development of the social structure, economics, the labour market and many other aspects of society’s functioning. For the United States, a nation created by the descendants of immigrants and to a large extent still a point of attraction for immigrants from all over the world, this issue is especially relevant.

Representatives of the country’s two leading political forces – the Republican and Democratic parties – generally have a negative attitude towards the problem of illegal immigration. However, they seriously differ in methods and approaches to solving this issue. It can be characterised as follows: Republicans in general are in favour of suppressing illegal immigration; they see it as an existential threat. Democrats, as a rule, consider it necessary to fight only those aspects of immigration that threaten national security – primarily drug trafficking, human trafficking, and the penetration of criminal and terrorist elements. At the same time they advocate a humane and fair solution and recognize the right of people to strive for security and well-being. Currently the most difficult situation related to illegal immigration is developing at the southern border of the United States, where, according to the current US administration, there is a humanitarian crisis. 

The special attitude towards the issue of illegal immigration is partly due to the fact that Hispanics (those who have retained their ethnic identity or were born in a Spanish-speaking country or family) are becoming an increasingly significant group of American voters. In 2000, Hispanics made up only 7% of the total number of voters, while in 2020 they accounted for 13%; the total number of Hispanics in the country has already exceeded 62.5 million people (19% of the population). Hispanics predominantly vote for the Democratic Party, although in the long term this support tends to decline somewhat. In 1976, more than 82% of Hispanics voted for a Democratic candidate, while only 63% did in 2020.

Importantly, Hispanics are not a homogeneous group of the US population. They include both native-born citizens of Texas, Florida, California and other southern states, as well as immigrants from nearly two dozen Latin American countries – both natural-born US citizens and first-generation citizens and recently arrived immigrants, including illegal ones

According to the United States Census Bureau (USCB), there are currently 37.2 million people with Mexican roots living in the United States, 5.8 million Puerto Ricans, 2.5 million Salvadorans, 2.4 million each of Dominicans and Cubans, 1.8 million Guatemalans, 1.4 million Colombians and Hondurans each, etc. Among Hispanics, polls show that attitudes toward the issue of illegal immigration vary widely depending on whether they have been US citizens for three or more generations or acquired citizenship more recently. In general, according to statistics, 81% of Hispanics in the United States are now.

However, a third of all Spanish-speaking citizens of the country are naturalized citizens, that is, those who recently received citizenship (among Salvadorans, Dominicans, Cubans, Colombians, Hondurans, this figure is 50% or more). Data shows that the former’s position on the issue of illegal immigration (especially those who are US citizens for three or more generations), largely echoes the opinion of the conservative-minded part of the country’s white non-Hispanic population.

These Hispanic groups, as a rule, also advocate tightening immigration laws and taking “tough” measures to curb illegal immigration, while new migrants often support the idea of liberalizing the migration regime and creating opportunities for family reunification.

Norms and Values
Whither International Migration?
Maria Apanovich
Despite decades of positive experience in the reception and integration of migrants, which have been accumulated by modern states, migrants remain a socially vulnerable group. From the exclusively social problems that are typical for all categories of citizens, we are returning to the issue of economics, namely, qualitative forecasting, writes Valdai Club expert Maria Apanovich.

Speaking about illegal immigration, there are usually three sources of its origin: illegal border crossing, legal crossings with subsequent violation of the visa rules (for example, working with only a tourist or student visa) and violation of the terms of stay in the country, when a legally-arrived alien illegally remains in the country after his or her visa’s expiration. Of course, from a political point of view, the first source of illegal immigration ranks first in importance for the United States.

In recent decades, the main flow of illegal immigration into the United States has been through the Mexican border, with a peak in recent years. Thus, in 2020, 400 thousand attempts to illegally cross the border were recorded; in 2021 this figure was 1.6 million, and in 2022 it was 2.76 million. The data for 2020 are specific due to the anti-COVID restrictions. However, the indicators for 2022 were previously unparalleled in US history, and in 2023 the situation became even more tense, approaching a critical level. At the same time, there is no reason to expect a decrease in tension yet, since there is no way back for the large groups of migrants who have accumulated on the Mexican border. As the experience of Arab and African immigration to the EU shows, resettlement is often carried out using a person’s last savings or is even the result of the collective efforts of relatives who “sponsored” this movement. As statistics for 2022 show, up to 20% of those detained for attempting to illegally cross the border did so for the second time in a year.

The severity of the crisis is also expressed in the changing structure of immigration, since in previous years, Mexicans ranked first among the number of people detained for attempting to cross the border illegally. Over the past three years, citizens of the Northern Triangle countries (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras) have been leading the statistics, and since this year, citizens of Venezuela have also been added. The number of illegal immigrants detained at the border was highest in 2021 – 1.65 million people (former peaks were reached in 1986 – 1.61 million people and 2000 – 1.64 million people). The years 2022 and 2023 were even more difficult. All this provokes a broad socio-political discussion in American society about ways to solve the problem.

Despite the fact that since the 1960s (since the adoption of the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965), with rare exceptions (one can recall the attempt at comprehensive immigration reform by George W. Bush in the early 2000s), the legislative acts adopted in the United States contributed to the tightening of migration policy, it is not possible to stop the growth in the flow of illegal immigrants. For every government measure, immigrants have their own asymmetric “answer.” For example, when entry requirements were tightened in 2001 to curb immigration, many Mexicans switched from the multiple-entry strategy to the “enter and stay” strategy.

The current US presidential election campaign is most likely heading towards a decisive battle between two political heavyweights – ex-President Donald Trump and incumbent Joe Biden. They have demonstrated different strategies in their policies towards the immigration crisis. Trump defends the ideas of maximally tightening approaches in this area. During his term in office, he initiated the construction of a barrier wall on the border with Mexico, signed a number of restrictive orders and sought to shift responsibility for the crisis to the countries of origin and transit. Joe Biden, in turn, tried to liberalize immigration policy, which is largely in line with the Democratic party’s electoral strategy. In particular, the emergency on the border was lifted, the construction of the wall stopped, the policy of opposing family reunification abandoned, etc. However, neither the tough measures Trump used nor the softer policies of the Biden administration led to success. The situation is getting worse from year to year. 

The deteriorating situation on the southern border has provoked a significant polarization of opinions in the modern political spectrum of the United States – from Trump’s “zero tolerance” position and Ron DeSantis’ idea to deploy the national guard to Joe Biden’s “safe and humanitarian migration system”, Marianne Williamson’s “compassionate policies”, and proposals to legalize illegal immigrants already in the country by Robert Kennedy Jr. Moreover, due to the age of the main candidates Donald Trump and Joe Biden, it is possible that the key two participants in the race will need to be replaced for natural reasons, and then the positions of the Republican and Democratic parties on the immigration issues may further evolve to the right and left, respectively, increasing the ideological gap.

In addition to the immediate political situation, there is an impact of the problem on the long-term and fundamental development of American society.

First, illegal immigration affects the ethno-racial structure of the US population. According to existing forecasts, white non-Hispanic Americans will become a racial minority by approximately 2045. Illegal immigration will contribute to the growth of the number of Hispanics, thereby changing the composition of the country’s population as a whole and the population structure of individual states and municipalities, mainly in the South (between 2010 and 2019, whites became a minority in 32 US counties). In this regard, the important question is to what extent Mexicans, as the most significant group of Hispanics in terms of numbers and duration of presence in American society, are able to become a “core” uniting a disparate community of the Hispanic population and contribute to the successful integration of new waves of immigrants from Latin America?

Second, the problem of ethno-racial income inequality is a significant issue. According to statistics, Hispanics, along with African Americans, have the lowest incomes, which have been growing more slowly over the past decades compared to that of the white non-Hispanic population of the United States.

Third, the “erosion” of the middle class is problematic, since illegal immigrants arriving from Latin American countries often compete for jobs not only with the poor, but also with the lower strata of the middle class, whose incomes differ from the higher strata of the poor population by 50% on average. At the same time, statistics show that the income of the middle class in the country has practically not grown over the past 30–40 years. Immigration, including illegal immigration, indirectly affects these processes, especially in relation to the income of the lower strata of the middle class.

Fourth, illegal immigrants increase the number of poor people in the United States, which in 2021 already amounted to 11.7% of the population (37.9 million people). At the same time, the share of poverty among Hispanics is 18%, and among some ethnic groups – more than 20% (Hondurans – 26%, Guatemalans – 23%, Puerto Ricans – 21%, Dominicans – 21%).

Fifth, Hispanic immigrants tend to have a low level of education, and, as we know, when the economic situation worsens, job loss primarily affects the low-skilled population, with an education at the secondary school level or below. Accordingly, the waves of uneducated immigrants worsen unemployment and create the preconditions for its growth in the event of new economic downturns.

Sixth, as a result of the declining importance of the middle class as the basis of the party-political system in the United States (as well as in other developed countries), populist tendencies are intensifying and the stability of the democratic system is being undermined. On the one hand, the leading parties have to manoeuvre more and more, forming their programme from a mosaic of requests from many social groups. On the other hand, populist leaders seek to harness the protest sentiments of the middle and lower strata of the population, which have been in a depressed state since the 2008–2009 crisis. In this regard, pressure on the socio-economic sphere of the United States from immigrants, especially illegal ones, sharply polarizes the political spectrum of the country.

Deep shifts in the ethno-racial structure of the country, in which white non-Hispanic Protestants will become a minority in two or three decades, are becoming an increasingly serious challenge for the Republican party. It is obvious that it will be forced to reconsider its long-term position on migration policy. One way out of the situation facing Republicans may be to rethink the concept of the “white majority” by incorporating the conservative part of the Hispanic population. Of course, this may cause dissatisfaction with other electoral groups oriented towards Republicans (for example, the population of the so-called Rust Belt). At the same time, Democrats will not abandon attempts to expand their electoral base at the expense of ethno-racial minorities, including Hispanics, putting forward more and more liberal measures in the field of immigration policy.

At the same time, an important point related to the immigration of Hispanics is the problem of reindustrialisation in the United States. To a large extent, it will be possible to implement it due to the cheap labour of new immigrants, and this, contrary to public sentiment, requires the liberalisation of immigration policy over the long term. Visionary politicians and corporate elites are probably already thinking about this option and the possibilities of its implementation, which, in turn, can provoke new polarizing effects.

Thus, the heated debate surrounding the issue of Latino immigration to the United States is not only an eloquent illustration of the deepening polarisation in the country. Its context extends far beyond the migration crisis on the southern border and increasingly concerns contradictory inter-American relations and, more broadly, the prospects for the liberal democratic model of development (at the level of states, their associations, and the whole world) as such, for which the United States has served as the standard.

The article uses the results of the scientific project titled “Effects of domestic political polarisation in the United States for American foreign policy in the medium and long term: Implications for the world and Russia”, which was carried out as part of the research program of the Faculty of World Economy and International Politics at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in 2023.

Migration: Threats and Resources
Anatoly Vishnevsky
The global demographic situation to date is fraught with the rise of migratory movements with unprecedented proportions. The high probability of such a development emerges from a huge growth of the population of the "Third World" and the resulting asymmetry of the population masses distribution over the planet, from the rapid growth of population mobility.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.