Even as Donald Trump drew parallels on Friday between the British vote to leave the European Union and the American presidential election, migration experts cautioned against too close a comparison of anti-immigrant sentiment in the two countries.
There are lessons to be taken from the Brexit decision, but more important are the very different heritages of U.S. and the United Kingdom, they said.
Together with Thursday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling blocking President Barack Obama's immigration reforms, the vote did put some wind back in Trump’s sails, said Kevin Appleby, the director of international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies of New York. And it showed that an anti-establishment movement is not unique to the United States.
But the presidential election is months off. American voters are more diverse and the country’s history is one of immigrants building the country, he said.
"It doesn't mean that we'll have the same result on this side of the pond as Britain did, because I think our nation is different in a lot of ways," he said.
Tapping a 'Well of Anxiety' on Immigration
The EU is the world's largest zone of free movement, letting anyone with its passport settle in any of its member nations, and the Brexit victory was as much a referendum on open borders and immigration policies as on British sovereignty. An Ipsos MORI poll found last week that immigration was the most important issue to voters in the UK.
"Free movement is basically the defining achievement of the European Union," said Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan, assistant director of the Migration Policy Institute's International Program.
But although economists agree that globalization brings benefits, the effects can be jarring locally. When the EU opened up to 10 new member states in 2004, the result was an influx of Eastern European workers to the UK.
"It's harder to point your finger at this amorphous, global event, and it's much easier to point your finger at a foreign worker who's still employed," Banulescu-Bogdan said.
The decision to leave reflected a populist, anti-elite sentiment and prompted Prime Minister David Cameron to announce he would step down in October.
In Scotland on Friday for the re-opening of his historic golf course in Turnberry, Trump praised the results and said that the British had reasserted control over their politics, their borders and economy. In November, Americans also will have a chance to vote for trade, immigration and foreign policies that put Americans first, he said.
"They took their country back, just like we will take America back," the presumptive Republican nominee tweeted.
Since he entered the race last June, Trump has promised to build a wall to stop undocumented immigrants from Mexico whom he has called rapists and criminals, and wants a temporary ban on Muslims coming into the country as a way to combat terrorism.
"Both are tapping into this well of anxiety about the fast pace of change that has brought about unfavorable conditions for a lot of people, and they've really tapped into this sense that people are being left behind," Banulescu-Bogdan said.
But the British experience of immigration largely began after its colonies became independent and, more recently, after the formation of the European Union, according to Muzaffar Chishti, the director of the Migration Policy Institute’s office at New York University School of Law.
The U.S., by contrast, is a country that has long thought of itself as a destination for people hoping to improve their lives, and throughout American history, impulses to close borders or restrict immigration have largely failed, he said. Phenomena such as the Know-Nothing Party, the anti-immigrant party of the mid-1800s and the Chinese Exclusion Act of the 1880s, prohibiting immigration of Chinese laborers, are looked back at with disapproval. Even Trump focuses on "illegal" immigration, he said.
"In our history there have been many moments of anti-immigrant sentiment and we have gone beyond them," Chishti said.
Today, in the U.S., only one third of people say immigrants are a burden to the country by taking jobs, housing and health care, while about 60 percent say their hard work and talent strengthen the country, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in March.
Referendum vs. General Election
Plus, Chishti said, the U.S. elections are not determined by popular vote. If the British parliament had taken that vote instead of opening it up into a referendum, the outcome would have been very different, he said.
Henry Fernandez of the Center for American Progress Action Fund faulted Cameron for allowing the far right and its anti-immigrant message to play an outsized role in the Conservative Party's policy and campaign messages.
Republicans leaders in the United States have allowed a similar anti-immigrant feeling to flourish, he said. That Trump is the party's presumptive nominee should come as no surprise, he said.
"David Cameron rolled the dice on a very bad gamble in order to try to appease that extreme right wing of his party," he said. "That's very similar to what Republican leadership has done in the United States. They rolled the dice, and the dice came up Trump."
But he also predicted that the Americans would reject targeting immigrants.
"Allowing the card of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment to be played again and again will have toxic results," he said. "But what I think it will do in the United States is create very severe electoral problems for the Republican Party."
Activists say they are prepared to fight Trump's portrayal of immigrants as dangerous and a drain on the economy.
"We're worried but we're also ready to fight back against Trump's scare tactics and lies," said Pili Tobar, the director of communications at the Latino Victory Project.
NBC's Asher Klein contributed to this report.