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Friday, September 4, 2015

Of Muppets and migration

I don't know if Americans can hear it over the immigration rhetoric in the U.S., but there is something pretty disturbing going on in Europe. It's being described as the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War.

That's a hell of a comparison, and I use hell advisedly. There have been hundreds of gruesome deaths: men, women, and children trapped in trucks; bodies fished from the sea. But I don't want to write about that, as if appealing to Westerners' humanity is enough to make us want "migrants" moving in next door. Because come on, most of us don't. Philosophically and even personally we may be pro-immigration--I certainly am--but that doesn't mean we have an answer for the desperate crowds trying to get through the Channel Tunnel or the Budapest train station. I don't know where to put those people, and even if I did, I don't know the logistics of actually settling them, let alone where Europeans would find the political will.

One thing I do know: These people have to go somewhere. We don't feel the urgency of World War II at present, but let's remember that all those people on the move in the 1930s and '40s had to either go somewhere, or die. There wasn't a humane, "send them back" solution, and there isn't now. Syria, for one, is a land of destruction; I don't need to go into who all contributed to making it a hellhole, it just is.

Some Westerners do sense that there is no way to send people back. They say--tongue in cheek I hope--sink the boats, or just bomb the whole Middle East. I understand the despair that leads to such statements. There is no obvious place to put people, and yet they keep coming. Are they fleeing for their lives, or are they economic migrants, "just" looking for a better life for themselves and their children?

In many cases, both. And here is the hard, cold, economic fact that Westerners and especially Europeans have to face. Whoever the migrants are, and however we manage them, there is no future without immigration.

European countries, without exception, have aging and declining populations. Some of the countries you would least expect this of, such as Italy, are in fact the most aging and declining. At the same time, all these countries have racked up unsustainable debts that future generations are going to be stuck with. Older workers are expecting to retire on a shrinking tax base. Without younger workers who pay taxes, every economy in Europe is unsustainable. Where are we going to get those people?

The United States, unlike Europe, can look forward to a growing economy sustained by continuing numbers of young workers who pay taxes and contribute to paying the national debts. But the only reason for that is immigration--specifically, Latin American immigrants and their children born in the U.S.A. This doesn't tell us, of course, how immigration should be managed, what the laws should be or how they should be enforced. But it's a demographic fact. The future of the U.S. is an immigrant future. (And the past is an immigrant past, but I'm not appealing to that here.)

Europeans, by and large anti-immigrant, point out that the U.S. and Canada are huge countries with a long history of integrating immigrants. Canada, which certainly can only grow and thrive with continuous immigration, is by and large successful; you hear relatively little immigrant-bashing or the idea that such people can never be Canadian. (With the Syrian refugees, Canada, like other countries, has tragically failed.) But Europeans say it's different here. Small, crowded, not used to it, Muslims...

All good points but there is no alternative. There is no future in which the population continues to be overwhelmingly white and monolingual (English or whatever the native language of the country is). It's just not demographically sustainable.

Do I know where to put the hated "migrants" in European countries? No. I don't have an answer for the U.S. either, but I do know the future is brown and multilingual. There is no other way to sustain our populations, our economies and tax base. You don't have to be a multiculturalist or a bleeding-heart liberal to understand this. It's business sense.

Certainly, the British approach of taking in asylum seekers but then forbidding them to work is not a good approach. Forced idleness is profoundly bad even for someone with far more resources than these people have. I remember my months of no work permit in the U.K. as some of the most depressing of my life; I hated it here and felt anything but part of the country I was living in. But a person enterprising enough to leave everything behind and risk his life is likely to work hard if given a chance.

In country after country, immigrants in general pay more in taxes than they use in services, contribute to the economy more (for example, by starting more new businesses) and commit fewer crimes than native-born people do. A system that hands out benefits to idle people is not sustainable, whether those people are migrants or not. But a system that finds a way to integrate new residents and take advantage of their hard work is the future--if Europe is not to decline.

It's this no alternative that, I think, most galls a significant proportion of the population, not only in Europe but in the U.S. The future I paint is basically what those of us who grew up watching Sesame Street learned to expect. Some of the presidential candidate rhetoric makes me think there are two types of Americans: the Sesame Street and the anti-Ses.

My generation was the first to grow up believing that women could do anything (our mothers' generation made it possible). We also learned that Spanish speaking was a normal part of American life, and now we know that a man of color can be President of the United States. All this drives the anti-Ses crowd crazy. They cannot stand a multicolored, multilingual future for America, and they think Barack Obama is somehow causing it. On the contrary, he can't stop it, and neither can they.

We know that not nearly enough refugees were taken in the 1930s and '40s, because we know what happened to those left behind. Many of those who fled, such as European Jews, made massive contributions to their adopted country. What seemed at the time like just a crisis turned out to be an opportunity. I know--sounds like something an American would say! At least, the America I grew up in.

Sesame Street was not the actual world of the 1970s, but it became real because my generation of kids grew up believing it was possible. Now it has moved from the possible to the necessary. This is the future of the United States. If Europeans are wise, they'll embrace it also.


M@ said...

You know what I find kind of funny? Thousands and thousands of British and other Europeans spent two centuries colonizing other countries - immigrating to them, essentially - without any concern for the "racial purity" of those countries. Now they're upset that thousands of people from those countries are coming in the other direction?

White privilege just knows no bounds!

Absolutely, immigration is a permanent reality. And I agree that we need to find ways to handle it better, not try to stem the tide of reality.

J. E. Knowles said...

Absolutely. Thanks, M.