In 2015, record numbers of people left their homes and fled to Europe due to the rise of ISIS, the Syrian civil war, and instability in Afghanistan, the Middle East, and elsewhere. More than two million people requested asylum within the European Union between 2015 and 2016.
It’s not yet clear how this influx of newcomers will change European politics in the long term. But it has already played a role in a wave of elections that saw far-right parties—in France, the Netherlands, Germany, Hungary, Austria, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Italy—make gains in parliaments and join governing coalitions with mainstream parties.
Whatever the causes of the backlash against immigrants—be they economic, xenophobic, or otherwise—the governments of Europe are not alone in facing the challenge. In the United States, the Trump administration has adopted a harsh anti-immigration and anti-refugee stance, one he’s been blocked from fully implementing—early proposals for a travel ban aimed at residents of several Muslim-majority nations were held up in the courts, and his long-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexican border is making little headway.
Nevertheless, anti-immigration sentiment has not developed without reasons of its own—and it is for those reasons that it has found a political constituency. In his new book, Go Back to Where You Came from: The Backlash Against Immigration and the Fate of Western Democracy, Sasha Polakow-Suransky chronicles the backlash against refugees and immigrants in Europe and the United States, and how it is reshaping politics. I spoke with Polakow-Suransky about the lessons that can be drawn from the refugee crisis and what the United States can learn from Europe. In particular, he made the case that the left is unwise to dismiss concerns about the speed and numbers of immigration. Below is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation.