A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of immigration. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Germany and Austria, the United Kingdom and France, Scandinavia and the Low Countries.

That’s what the ascendant far-right parties in Europe would have you believe, anyway. Over the past few years, a confluence of economic hardship and near-sighted policy has stricken the continent with xenophobia unseen in decades. Nationalist parties have surged in nearly every European parliament. Intolerant legislation like France’s bans of burqas and gypsies has become low-hanging political fruit.

Some might claim that the United States is witnessing a similar nationalism emerge. Occasionally the odd “reform” proposal, such as the one that effectively requires Hispanics to carry ID at all times, lends credence to that notion. In reality, the immigration debate in this country differs from that sweeping Europe in at least one significant way: our debate is a legal question.

Arizona’s law could have been worse. We’re fortunate to live in a culture that does not permit blatantly racist invective from our political sphere. And we’re lucky that the American debate deals with illegal immigration.

A few months ago, the Sweden Democrats made historic gains in their country’s parliament behind the motto “Sweden is for the Swedes.” Austria’s Freedom Party, the British National Party, the German National Democratic Party, and their ilk have similarly reordered decades-old party alliances in European governments on anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim platforms. Their message is unabashedly xenophobic and exclusionary: “We can’t allow that they come to our country, that they come to Europe, and they keep their own culture, their own religion—Islamic religion,” said the leader of Belgium’s Vlaams Belang party in one typical example.

The nationalism that underlies Europe’s far right exists here as well. Large swaths of the Tea Party’s message appear to be informed by those sentiments. In Europe, however, public discourse is much more overtly segregationist than ours. That is at least partly due to the fact that the right’s position in the American debate merely demands that existing law be enforced.

The purported immigration problems in Europe exist precisely because of the ease of legal emigration to those countries. Anti-immigrant Europeans have no legal crutch on which to lean the usual class tensions endemic of economic lethargy. The invective has nowhere to go but straight to the heart of why the nationalists truly don’t want them there. That insecurity surely informs part of the U.S.’s most conservative stances on immigration, but their rhetoric never needs to admit to it due to its general sympathy with the law.

American conservatives don’t profess wanting to stop immigration, as some of their European counterparts do, but illegal immigration. Considering far more jobs are lost to outsourcing than to cheap domestic labor, it would appear that the border defenders are still scapegoating illegals for unrelated problems in this country. But on a rhetorical level, the debate favors nationalism in the United States in a way that the European debate does not. The same fears that are propelling the far right in Europe need only squat immutably on settled law here. This country’s discussion mostly consists of attempts to redefine the terms of the debate, with competing sides casting illegals as criminals, victims of a broken system, and everything in between.

This is something to be grateful for. If not for the illegality at the heart of the issue, the “nativism” in this country would proceed directly to much uglier territory. Compare the reactionary agenda emerging in Europe with the issue’s most controversial development in the United States, Arizona’s notorious SB 1070. A close look at the law reveals that it mostly commits to enforcing existing statute, albeit with regrettable language that includes a sanction of racial profiling. Essentially, the act is little more than a publicity stunt.

The sentiments underneath the far-right’s rise in Europe are trans-cultural and fundamentally human fears. They reliably crop up anywhere hardship and multiculturalism intersect. It should also be noted that there are many differences between the immigration situations of these two continents, especially a less complete assimilation of foreigners into European culture than into American culture. But summarily, the fact that the bulk of our debate on immigration centers around legal reform sets the issue on a more civilized plane than it would exist on if there were no legal recourse for fear. It may be the very definition of a blessing in disguise, but then again, those tend to arrive in uncountable numbers.

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