Migration has become a highly divisive, polarizing issue. This article contributes to the understanding of this polarization by looking at interpretations of migration during critical junctures. It explores discursive framings during the recent migration crises in the European Union and the United States. Analysing interview data collected between 2014 and 2018 with over 100 governance actors, it finds that similar interpretations emerge among the same type of
Immigration is among the most salient and divisive issues in Western democracies, and scholars are increasingly striving to understand this politicization (see Van der Brug et al. 2015, Grande et al 2019). This article contributes to this debate by looking at the framing of immigration in the context of crisis. It looks at how causes and effects of immigration have been understood, and communicated among governance actors during a critical period. Ways of (re)producing meaning about immigration are at the core of politicization processes. The divergence or convergence of actors’ views on the issue, promoting consequently similar or contradictory policy solutions, can either fuel conflicts about immigration, i.e. it can increase the existing politicization of the field of immigration policy, or it can help to depoliticize it.
The politicization of immigration did not develop in a void. In the case of the European Union, immigration has been increasingly dealt with as a European Union concern, while at the same time Euroscepticism has been rising (Taggart and Szczerbiak 2018; Geddes, Hadj Abdou, and Brumat 2020). This questioning of the European project, as well as of immigration, however, is paradigmatic of a wider trend that stretches beyond Europe: namely a growing opposition to a post-national, globalized world, and growing demands to restore national sovereignty. The exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Brexit), and the ‘Trump phenomenon’ in the United States have become icons of this political trend, often labelled as ‘sovereignism’, i.e. the aspiration for the recovery of a (real or imaginary) past in which authority was contained within national boundaries (Basile and Mazzoleni 2020).
Social groups that benefit symbolically and materially from globalization and economic integration, and those that lose out are pitted against each other (Kriesi et al. 2012). This conflict has manifested itself ideologically in a contest of cosmopolitans versus communitarians (Strijbis, Helmer, and de Wilde 2018): those who are in favour of the opening of borders to flows of capital, services, goods, persons and international collaboration and those who prefer the closure of nation state borders, national sovereignty and independence. It comes as no surprise then that those social groups and parties that oppose European integration and those that oppose international migration overlap (Kriesi et al. 2012). Immigration and European integration are twin issues; they are the two core issues upon which the new political cleavage is articulated. Put differently, the expansion of ‘the scope of conflict’ (Grande, Schwarzbözl, and Fatke 2019) – on migration as well as on European integration – within a political system, i.e. the politicization of these two issues, is rooted in the same conflict, and the cleavage that emerged from this conflict.
If we want to fully understand the underlying dynamics of the politicization of European integration, processes of de-integration and rising sovereignist demands, we have to turn our attention to immigration. We need, moreover, to complement our study with analyses that stretch beyond the EU. If it is the globalization-cleavage that drives opposition to European integration, as research so far has emphasized, then an examination of other regions where in response to high levels of globalization this cleavage manifests itself is highly relevant, to put the developments in the EU into perspective. This contribution thus aims to turn the telescope by looking at immigration with a focus on the United States, as a comparator case to the European Union.
It discusses the 2015 migration crisis in the European Union and the 2014 migration crisis at the southern border of the United States. These two cases are chosen since they occurred during a similar time period, and both were about significantly rising numbers of arrivals of migrants from conflict zones seeking asylum. In both cases the crisis became apparent as a result of the lack of reception facilities, given the increasing numbers of people arriving. Both occurred in settings in which the globalization cleavage is highly relevant, and immigration has been highly politicized (Wong 2016; Grande, Schwarzbözl, and Fatke 2019).
In the EU in 2015 and 2016 over 1.2 million persons (2016: 1204300, 2015: 1.257.000 first time applicants) filed an asylum application, a number more than double of that of 2014 (627000) with persons from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq being the major asylum seeking groups (Eurostat 2017). In the U.S. the crisis unraveled during the summer of 2014 with increasing flows of asylum seekers, many of whom were unaccompanied minors from Central America. In 2014 in total about 121,200 asylum claims were filed in the country, which represented a 44% increase from the previous year (UNHCR 2015).
Crises such as those focused on in this contribution are widely considered as critical junctures. By inducing a rise in the salience of issues that touch upon different interests and values held by a society, as immigration does, they can activate concerns and exacerbate conflicts between different groups in society, and can potentially pull those that are positioned in the middle of the conflict to one side or another (Ademmer and Stoehr 2019). Salience, i.e. the growing visibility of an issue, however, is in itself not sufficient to expand conflicts and/or diverging viewpoints, as research (see Meltzer et al. 2017) has emphasized. It matters which perspectives are strengthened; which are downplayed or omitted in the public sphere and which cues are provided by elites (ibid.).
In light of this consideration, the question this article addresses is: How were these migration crises interpreted in these two parts of the world? What were the key understandings of what happened (of the causes and effects of immigration), and what courses of actions did these understandings generate?
The article takes an actor centred perspective, focusing on the frames of governance actors, defined as those that seek to make or shape policies in the field of migration. The frames of elite actors are not only important in terms of providing references for the wider debate, but they also constitute migration governance, by guiding policy decisions in the field of migration.
The findings presented in this article show that interpretations of the migration crises have reinforced already established approaches, rather than promoting changes in perspectives and policy approaches, and in doing so further fuel the potential for the politicization of immigration.