Centrists from US to Germany move right on immigration

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BERLIN — It’s a nightmare scenario for President Joe Biden: Just ahead of the election, a migrant commits a grisly crime that captures national attention and is seized upon by the far right.

For his German counterpart, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, that’s just what happened. Nine days before the European election this month, an Afghan migrant stabbed a policeman to death in a city square, reigniting the highly charged debate on the country’s asylum policies.

The attack in Germany was just the kind of unpredictable incident centrist parties fear most, serving to kindle voters’ long-standing fears that the right to asylum, enshrined in international law, is driving uncontrolled migration. Those fears have enervated Scholz’s fragile, left-leaning political coalition, just as they have sapped political will from European and American leaders to resist calls to impose ever-stricter border measures.

As elections loom in the U.S., the U.K. and France, the fraught politics of migration are a key issue animating voters on both sides of the Atlantic and fueling far-right parties that promise to put an end to migration driven by asylum — just as climate change and global conflicts have propelled the number of displaced people to record highs.

“It’s a volatile issue, because things happen over which nobody has any control,” U.S.-based Democratic pollster Mark Mellman told POLITICO. “Whether it’s happening in Central America or Mexico or whether some person who’s not here legally commits some heinous crime, these are not things that any president or member of Congress controls in any way shape or form.”

Now Biden is trying to avoid the fate of Scholz’s party, which suffered historic losses as the country’s far-right party seized on the attack to help drive unprecedented support at the polls.

Scholz, like Biden and other centrist leaders, has sought to strike a crowd-pleasing balance on immigration, pursuing more restrictive policies while avoiding harsh rhetoric and radical measures that would alienate progressives and many left-leaning voters.

The question is whether such a balance can work politically, particularly as voters often cite migration as the most pressing matter facing their societies.

“[Leaders] are trying to balance competing priorities and interests. But you’re trying to tell a story, ultimately about reducing the risks that accrue from immigration, and highlighting the benefits. That is incredibly difficult to do,” said Natalia Banlescu-Bogdan, deputy director of the Migration Policy Institute’s International Program, a Washington-based, nonpartisan think tank.

The politics of immigration

At the same time, far-right forces across the West are not only seizing upon widespread fears of uncontrolled migration — they are also stoking those fears with increasingly incendiary rhetoric and falsehoods, depicting the impact of migration on Western societies in apocalyptic terms.

Donald Trump has, on more than one occasion, said immigrants are “poisoning the blood“ of American society — employing language that would likely constitute a crime in Germany, where a law against incitement of hatred is one of many measures in the country’s postwar constitution intended to prevent a repeat of the Nazi past.

On Tuesday, the Trump campaign deployed yet more inflammatory rhetoric in response to Biden moving to protect some 550,000 undocumented spouses and children of U.S. citizens from deportation.

“This week, we learned an illegal alien from El Salvador who crooked Joe Biden allowed into our country murdered a mother of five while she was on a run in Maryland, and we learned an illegal alien from Ecuador tied up and raped a 13-year-old girl at knifepoint in broad daylight,” said Trump spokesperson Karoline Leavitt.

“But Biden doesn’t care about the American lives that will forever be destroyed by the illegal criminals he is importing,” Leavitt said in a statement.

While there are common themes on the issue of migration in the U.S and Europe, there are key differences when looking at the EU election and what it could mean for the U.S. election come November, argued David McGonigal of National Security Action, an advocacy group making the case for Biden’s reelection. For example, the U.S. economy is much stronger, and many American voters are galvanized by the issue of abortion.

Biden aides, while wary of far-right gains in the EU elections, also note that far-right populists underperformed expectations in Poland, Sweden, Finland, Slovakia and Greece. Still, the far right in all those countries apart from Finland achieved inroads.

“I don’t know if there’s evidence to suggest that EU parliamentary elections are predictive,” said McGonigal. “In 2019, the far right made gains, and a year later, President Biden beat Donald Trump, who was an incumbent at the time and was in a strong position.”

A broken system

The right to asylum, enshrined in laws around the world, is largely a consequence of Germany’s Nazi past and the desire to prevent genocide and persecution. The 1951 Refugee Convention was designed to protect Europeans displaced after World War II. A 1967 protocol, signed by 147 countries, expanded protections to apply to all people fleeing conflict and persecution around the world.

But many voters in the U.S. and Europe perceive their asylum systems, however well intended, to be utterly broken, driving uncontrolled migration. In fiscal year 2023, a record number of asylum applications — 478,885 — were filed in the U.S., with many migrants submitting their claims after crossing the southern border. Less than 32,000 applicants were granted asylum, and a huge backlog of cases remain.

This year, Americans ranked immigration as the most important problem in the country for three months in a row, according to Gallup, surpassing bread-and-butter issues like the economy and inflation. That was the longest stretch immigration topped the list in 24 years, even though the number of encounters on the U.S.-Mexico border has dropped since December 2023, when it hit a single-month record.

It’s perhaps then no surprise that Biden, ahead of his own November election, followed through on an aggressive plan earlier this month to sharply reduce the number of asylum seekers entering the country, signing executive actions that shut down the southern border in between ports of entry when there is an average of 2,500 crossings a day over a seven-day period.

Biden, wary of alienating progressives in his party and looking to energize his base, has also tried to differentiate himself from Trump on immigration. The president on Tuesday announced a sweeping new action to shield 550,000 undocumented immigrants who have long resided in the United States from deportation. He also made it easier for some immigrants to obtain work permits.

It comes as Biden is trying to walk a political tightrope on the thorny issue. The White House has been hyper-focused on fighting back against GOP attacks, but Biden aides also believe voters want a balanced approach: A president who manages chaos at the border while also offering new pathways to citizenship for long-term undocumented people.

“We can both secure the border and provide legal pathways to citizenship,” Biden said at a White House event on Tuesday.

“We have to acknowledge that the patience and the goodwill of the American people is being tested by their fears of the border. They don’t understand a lot of it. These are the fears my predecessor is trying to play on. And he says immigrants, and his words are, ‘poisoned the blood of the country.’ When he calls immigrants, in his words, ‘animals,’” Biden said.

A fraught balancing act

Scholz and other centrist European leaders have attempted a similar balancing act as the continent has experienced a sharp rise in asylum seekers. Last year, the number of crossings at the EU’s external border hit levels not seen since 2016, when Europe experienced an unprecedented refugee crisis. Of EU countries, Germany received the most asylum applications by far, with 334,000 requests — about 140,000 below the number for the entire U.S. Since the refugee crisis of 2015 and 2016, when Germans were lauded for their “welcome culture” under then-Chancellor Angela Merkel, centrist European leaders have moved considerably to the right on immigration.

“Centrist parties cannot ignore the issue of migration, but have to find their own positions and rhetoric that is distinctively different from the far right,” Johannes Hillje, a Berlin-based political consultant who tracks far- and extreme-right rhetoric in Germany, told POLITICO. “Copying the far right only helps the far right.”

In April, the European parliament approved a series of laws to speed deportations of failed asylum applicants at the EU’s borders. That legislation, aimed in great part at halting the rise of far-right parties across the continent, was criticized by those parties as not going far enough — and by left-wing parties and activists for violating human rights.

In the U.S., Biden has found himself in a parallel predicament. Trump and Republican lawmakers killed bipartisan border legislation earlier this year, giving what Biden officials saw as much-needed political ammo on the issue of migration. It moved the president to act alone, rolling out new restrictive policies earlier this month by shutting down much of the southern border. The new approach was met with fury from some allies who compared the severe restrictions to those enacted under former PresidentTrump.

When Biden softened that measure by offering new protections for undocumented immigrants, Republicans deemed it “mass amnesty” that will harm Americans.

If he were looking across the Atlantic for warning signs, Biden would have noted that the European legislation addressing migration did little to halt the rise of the far right in the European election.

The far right surges in Europe

In France, Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally won over 30 percent of the vote, crushing French President Emmanuel Macron’s coalition. In Germany, the Alternative for Germany party (AfD) surged to a second-place finish ahead of Scholz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), the country’s oldest political party, which had its worst performance in a national vote in well over a century.

Exit polls suggested that immigration, as in the U.S., was one of the top issues on voters’ minds. Fifty-three percent of voters in Germany said they were “very worried” about too many foreigners coming to the country, a big rise compared to the European election five years ago, according to one survey.

For many German voters, the knife attack just before the election likely contributed to that worry. The Afghan suspect, whom authorities say was motivated by a radical Islamist ideology, had arrived in Germany a decade earlier, and had remained in the country though his initial asylum claim had been denied — a fact the far right stressed.

“Your ideology of open borders and unrestricted, uncontrolled immigration is based on illusions and lies that cost human lives,” Alice Weidel, a national AfD leader said in parliament after the attack.

Germany’s conservative opposition, which leads by a wide margin in national polls, is hoping to retake power with a simple message: Elect us to reign in migration, or else the AfD will come instead, marking a sharp departure from Merkel’s policies.

Friedrich Merz, the leader of Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has repeatedly warned of the dangers of Islamist radicalism in Germany, supports cutting social benefits for asylum seekers, and praised a controversial scheme by U.K Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to send asylum seekers entering the U.K. by crossing the English Channel to Rwanda.

British judges have ruled Sunak’s Rwanda plan unlawful. But that hasn’t stopped numerous conservative leaders in Europe from embracing it. Italy has begun work on a similar scheme which sends people to Albania, which isn’t in the EU, for processing.

Scholz, meanwhile, has been trying to save his party and weak coalition government by talking tougher. His government is now vowing to speed deportations — and also to deport Afghans and Syrians who commit crimes, despite the fact that their countries are ruled by repressive regimes.

“It outrages me when someone who has found protection here commits the most serious crimes,” Scholz said ahead of the election. “Such criminals should be deported, even if they come from Syria or Afghanistan.”

For that stance, Scholz received political blowback from his left-wing coalition partners, the Greens. But even if his government can agree on such measures, implementing those promises may be next to impossible given the legal difficulties, creating the impression that Scholz’s deportation promise was a desperate, pre-election maneuver.

An uncertain future

President Biden’s move to partially shut down asylum claims earlier this month has already faced its first legal challenge. And even though his administration is touting an initial drop in border crossings, immigration policy experts warn that partially shutting down asylum claims will do little to deter people leaving their countries in the long-term and could lead to sporadic surges at the southern border.

Democrats and immigration advocates in the U.S. are sounding the alarm that adopting the right’s framing on the issue has already and will continue to hurt the left and political center. Jeremy Konyndyk, a former Biden administration official and now the president of Refugees International, said this approach continues to move the political conversation to the right, as seen in France, Germany and the Netherlands.

“All it does is validate the impression that immigration is chaos. Immigration is bad, and the solution is evermore draconian crackdown,” Konyndyk said. “And then you’re basically negotiating over how draconian to be. And when you’re negotiating over how draconian to be over immigration restrictions, that is unfavorable territory for the political center. It’s very favorable territory for the political right.”

There are other reasons deportations are extremely difficult to implement — both in the U.S. and Europe. One key factor is that many migrants come without any passports or identifying documentation, complicating the task of sending them back to their countries of origin.

Meanwhile, the AfD says it has simple solutions, portraying itself as the only party willing to save a German people it claims are under siege due to the catastrophic consequences of uncontrolled migration.

“I think the answer is clear, and the citizens know it,” AfD lawmaker, Gottfried Curio, said last week in parliament during a debate on the consequences of the knife attack. “Only with the AfD will the security situation for our citizens be truly bearable again.”