A Lesson from Europe: Relax about Immigration


EspañolEvery year, thousands come from the south to hazard the border crossing. Would-be migrants face arduous journeys, razor wire, and armed guards. Most flee poverty or repression, all are in search of a better life. Mistreatment and deportation are likely.

The picture could be along the militarized US-Mexico border. But this is in Europe — or, more accurately, Ceuta and Melilla, Spanish enclaves in Morocco. If migrants get in, they’re entitled under European Union law to an asylum hearing.

Hundreds die, and thousands are rescued annually, trying to enter the European Union illegally. (Wikimedia)

Would-be migrants regularly storm border fences in their hundreds. Some have drowned, braving rubber bullet “warning shots,” trying to swim around. Human Rights Watch reported in February that Spanish guards regularly use excessive force, while Moroccan authorities “commonly beat [and] otherwise abuse” those handed back over.

Many in the United States have rightly criticized the increased militarization of the US-Mexican border. Notwithstanding a dip in 2014, migrant deaths along the frontier have spiked since 2000, with 445 dying in 2013. But where are the critics of Europe’s migration policy, which led to 3000 dying at sea trying to reach European shores in 2014 alone?

In a previous post, I argued that Latin America should steer clear of Europe’s approach to counter-terrorism. In the same way, the United States could learn much from Europe on how not to respond to illegal immigration. If the two were to compare experiences, and the evidence pointing to a better way forward, the case for change on both sides of the Atlantic would be strengthened.

Stop the Smugglers

David Frum, a former speechwriter to President George W. Bush, and himself originally a Canadian immigrant, has argued that lax US immigration policies have served to fund Central American criminal groups who monopolize the illegal people-trafficking industry. Regularizing the legal status of illegal migrants, he suggests, only boosts criminal revenues.

In Europe, others have similarly pointed to links between human traffickers and criminal or terrorist organizations. Those making the sea crossing to Cyprus, Italy or Spain have to deal with traffickers as deadly as any “coyotes” plying the US-Mexico run: 500 drowned in September when smugglers rammed a boat mid-voyage over a disagreement with passengers.

But as long as economic disparities exist between North and South, sealing off the borders won’t prevent migrants from attempting the journey via any means possible. If migration is criminalized, criminal groups from Ciudad Juárez to El Salvador, and the Sahel to Syria, will continue to profit from people’s desperation. One answer: break their monopoly by actively reaching out to those migrants in most need, facilitating their legal transit to safety.

Save the Economy

Both facing an extended period of economic stagnation, many voters in the United States and in the member-states of the European Union have explained the lack of jobs and opportunities on immigration. Yet studies purporting to show this link in the US have been repeatedly proved based on sloppy methodology and misguided assumptions: migrants tend to take low-end or high-end jobs, and provide key flexibility in moving to where work is.

In the United Kingdom, anti-migration rhetoric has been on the rise for the past 10 years. Despite repeated homophobic, sexist and xenophobic gaffes, a center-right party is set to gain significant chunks of the vote in 2015 elections through an anti-immigration platform. Yet repeated studies have shown that migration provides a net benefit to the economy. Regularizing illegal migrants would earn the UK economy US$4.7 billion annually, according to a recent government-commissioned report

Europe and the US offer two separate case studies, despite their differences, illustrating the benefits of the free movement of peoples, and the gains that could be made by regularizing the status of illegal migrants. Remittances sent by migrants to relatives in Sub-Saharan Africa or in Central America, for example, provide a vital economic lifeline, without which the flow of people north would likely be far greater.

Beat the Anti-Immigration Rhetoric

But as well as the compelling practical and economic reasons for a more rational approach to migration lie strong ethical and philosophical considerations. Central to the European project is the idea of the free movement of peoples: on what basis should this principle arbitrarily end at the Mediterranean? The UK has often depended on migration to survive: why turn its back on those seeking to contribute now?

Anti-migration rhetoric also goes against a strong vein of British liberalism. John Stuart Mill, in his Principles of Political Economy, called the mix of ideas brought about by migration “one of the primary sources of human progress.” The foundational importance of immigration to the United States shouldn’t have to be reiterated: many of the first settlers fled the kind of intolerance now on the rise again in Europe.

Moreover, hardline opponents of immigration in the US might be surprised to find the ideological company they’re keeping. Karl Marx, in On the Question of Free Trade, decried Britain’s decision to accept Irish laborers fleeing the Great Famine as a bourgeois ploy to “force down wages and lower the material and moral position of the English working class.”

The evidence is mounting on both sides of the Atlantic: a rational migration policy would boost economies, save lives, and combat poverty abroad, thus reducing net migration. Now it’s time for the political debate to catch up with the reality.

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