ROME — As NATO allies convene, one issue not on their formal agenda but never far from their thoughts is immigration — even though illegal border crossings are decreasing on both sides of the Atlantic.
The separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border and Italy's refusal to let shipwrecked migrants disembark in its ports illustrate the hardening positions on border control in Washington and European capitals.
Lost in the heated political debate is the fact that migrant arrivals in Europe across the Mediterranean from Africa and Turkey are at their lowest level in five years, while arrests on the U.S.-Mexico border — an imperfect but widely used gauge of illegal crossings — are far below levels seen two decades ago.
"The numbers don't support the hysteria," said Joel Millman, a spokesman for the Geneva, Switzerland-based International Organization for Migration. "Politicians know what moves voters, and this is extremely effective in moving voters."
In both the U.S. and Europe, immigration is increasingly a key political fault line. One side accuses those cracking down on illegal immigration of scapegoating immigrants for problems such as crime and unemployment, even when the correlation is weak. The other side says politicians are simply recognizing voters' concerns about national identity and poor integration that have long been ignored.
In Europe, the liberal immigration policies that many governments implemented until recently never had widespread popular support, said Ivar Arpi, a conservative editorial writer at Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. But because Europeans cared more about other issues, such as the economy or education, there was no serious backlash.
That changed in 2015, when 1 million people — most of them from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan — crossed into Europe from Turkey and used the lack of border controls in the European Union to roam freely from the Balkans into Austria and onward to Germany and Scandinavia. That surge and the pressures it put on the destination countries pushed migration to the top of Europe's political agenda, where it has remained since.
"2015 fundamentally changed Europe. But it is hard to know how big a change is when you still are in the middle of it," Arpi said. "Nationalism or globalism, this is the new divide between people. It trumps left-right."
Immigration is a major theme ahead of Sweden's elections in September, just as it has been in a series of European votes in the past two years, including Britain's referendum on leaving the EU. Far-right and anti-migrant parties have made gains in Austria, France and Germany, while Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban, known for his tough stance on migrants, easily won re-election in April.
Just weeks after taking office in Italy's coalition government, the League — a party vowing to put "Italians first" — has forced other EU nations to grapple with the issue of sea arrivals, which have placed a disproportionate burden on Mediterranean countries in dealing with those seeking a new life in Europe. Things came to a head when League leader Matteo Salvini, Italy's interior minister and deputy prime minister, closed Italian ports to private ships picking up migrants sailing from North Africa in flimsy boats, saying those volunteer rescuers act as de facto "taxi services" for human smuggling networks. As a result, two rescue vessels have had to carry rescued migrants on a much longer journey to Spain, and another spent days in limbo off Malta until European countries agreed to share the responsibility for the more than 200 people on board.
The crackdown comes as the number of those trying to make the perilous crossing is dwindling. Sea arrivals in Italy were already down by 80 percent when the new government took office. Across the Mediterranean, about 45,000 migrants arrived by sea in Italy, Greece and Spain in the first half of the year, according to the U.N. refugee agency. That's the lowest level since 2013 and down from about 100,000 in the same period last year. So far this year, 1,400 migrants are believed to have died trying to cross the Mediterranean.
Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who refused to close Germany's borders at the height of the migrant crisis in 2015, has toughened her stance. To salvage her government from a rift over migration, she has agreed to set up transit centers to process migrants and potentially turn them away at the Austrian border. German police recorded fewer than 5,000 illegal crossings of that border in January-May, compared with more than 60,000 in the same period in 2016.
Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister and current president of an alliance of liberals in the European Parliament, last week ridiculed concerns over what he referred to as a "so-called" crisis.
"Why I am saying so-called? Because I don't think it is a real migration crisis what we are living in Europe for the moment," he told the assembly, noting that the flow is a tiny fraction of the 68 million displaced people worldwide, according to U.N. figures.
In the U.S., President Donald Trump has made immigration a big issue, with his "zero tolerance" policy to criminally prosecute anyone caught crossing the border illegally. Because children can't be in jail with their parents, more than 2,300 families caught by Border Patrol were separated, generating outrage in the U.S. and abroad. The move has drawn condemnation from religious, humanitarian and political leaders.
The U.S. Border Patrol made about 304,000 arrests on the U.S.-Mexico border in 2017, compared with the record high of 1.64 million in 2000. The highest number this decade was 447,000 in 2010, which is still dramatically lower than what the U.S. experienced in the 1990s and 2000s when the Border Patrol routinely exceeded more than 1 million arrests of immigrants at the Mexico border.
The Pew Research Center, which studies migration trends in the U.S., determined in 2014 that more Mexican immigrants are leaving the U.S. than arriving, which is part of the reason for the slowing rates. The collapse of the housing market a decade ago also contributed as the U.S. economy tanked and jobs dried up.
But one element of immigration into the U.S. that has surged significantly in recent years is the arrival of children who travel without their parents from Central America. In 2010, the U.S. had about 18,000 unaccompanied children taken into custody at its borders, increasing to 68,000 four years later and remaining above 40,000 each year since.
Charles Hirschman, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle who has researched immigration in the U.S., said the popular and political response to immigration is only "loosely connected" to the volume of arrivals. Economic insecurity among workers and "unscrupulous political leaders" who use fear of migrants to mobilize followers, are much more important factors, he said.
"Political leaders who try to hew to a more balanced perceptive are usually at a political disadvantage," he said in a reference to Merkel. "Fear is a very potent political weapon."