Why Do the Russian and Chinese Governments Want Americans to Dislike Immigrants?

Most of these memes and attempts to influence American political opinions are extremely goofy; the IRA’s memes are so bad that they likely didn’t cause anybody to change their political opinions. Some of the facebook pages created by the IRA spread widely debunked claims of illegal immigrant welfare consumption. In the same way that some Americans are likely to exaggerate the impact of foreign governments on the election to cover up their own political failures, these bad memes were likely created for political actors in Russia to show their bosses that they are trying to sow political division in a country that they don’t understand.

Assuming that these memes were intended to influence American politics, why do the governments of Russia and China gain from increasing American nativism? The IRA assumes that more intense political disagreement about contentious issues will weaken the United States. Perhaps, if the IRA’s propaganda campaign were to succeed, they’d be happy to see immigration restrictions undermining American patriotism and closing off an outlet for anti‐authoritarian dissidents. Another likely answer is that more anti‐immigrant sentiment could exacerbate the chaotic perceptions of immigration along the U.S. border. The Chinese government could use U.S. border chaos as tu quoque to distract from their continuing and ghastly oppression of Uyghurs. Chinese state media have used the chaos of the Mexican border crisis to deflect criticism and accuse the United States of hypocrisy, drawing parallels between American immigration detention centers and the concentration camps in Xinjiang, China. The words of the Chinese government here could be intended to embolden Chinese patriots or demoralize Americans; either way, at least one portion of the Chinese government believes that it benefits from the perception of chaos at our border.

Another possibility is that the IRA views American nativists as a potentially destabilizing political force. Americans are becoming increasingly pro‐immigration over time but restrictionists are very intense in their beliefs. After the 2020 election, many recalcitrant supporters of President Trump thought the election was stolen with the influence of illegal immigrant voters. Some of the most ardent believers in that theory rioted on January 6th, 2021 and attempted to disrupt Congress when it was counting the electoral votes. Not all nativists rioted on January 6th, but virtually all of the rioters were likely nativists. Some Russian bureaucrats might have taken credit for that riot, as implausible as it seems.

Immigration restrictionists often cite national security as a major reason for opposing liberalized immigration. The U.S. government should continue to be committed to stopping security threats from entering the United States. It’s telling that some foreign governments appear intent on making Americans terrified of immigration for national security reasons – albeit with terrible memes. Efforts by the IRA and the Chinese government are probably ineffective but it’s worth wondering why they’re trying to turn Americans into nativists.

Michael Howard is a research associate at the Cato Institute. Alex Nowrasteh is the director of immigration studies and the CATO Institute’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy StudiesThis article, originally posted to the Cato Institute website, is published courtesy of the Cato Institute.