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If Liberals Won’t Enforce Borders, Fascists Will

David Frum, 03/13/2019

PART ONE - The Wave That’s Still Building  

Within a decade, the foreign-born percentage of the U.S. population will surpass its previous all-time peak — and then keep rising.

Through much of the 20th century, the United States received comparatively few immigrants. In the 60 years from 1915 until 1975, nearly a human lifetime, the United States admitted fewer immigrants than arrived, legally and illegally, in the single decade of the 1990s.

If you grew up in the 1950s, the 1960s, or even the 1970s, heavy immigration seemed mostly a chapter from the American past, narrated to the nostalgic strains of The Godfather or Fiddler on the Roof. The Ellis Island immigrant-inspection station—through which flowed the ancestors of so many of today’s Americans—closed in 1954. It reopened as a museum in 1990.

Yet rather than fading into history, immigration has only been accelerating. From 1990 to 2015, 44 million people left the global South to find new homes in the global North. They came from Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

They came to the United States above all, but to the nations of Europe too. The United Kingdom has received nearly as many immigrants, relative to its population, as the United States has. Germany and Sweden have received more. Some 45 million foreign-born people now make their home in the United States. About 11 million to 12 million live here illegally.

As with climate change, separating annual fluctuations from long-term trends is important. Illegal immigration into the United States by Mexicans is now declining. Border crossings by Central Americans are steeply rising. Year by year, immigration numbers may shift up or down. But decade by decade, immigration is remaking nations on a world-altering scale.

By 2027, the foreign-born proportion of the U.S. population is projected to equal its previous all-time peak, in 1890: 14.8 percent. Under present policy, that percentage will keep rising to new records thereafter.

This massive new wave of immigration has brought many benefits to the United States. Of the 122 Americans who won a Nobel Prize from 2000 to 2018, 34 were immigrants. Four of the five Americans who won Nobels in 2016 were born outside the country. Of the 41 Fortune 500 companies created since 1985, eight had an immigrant founder. In many ways, the United States is a stronger, richer, and more dynamic country because of international migration. I am an immigrant myself. Born in Canada, I attended college in the United States, became a permanent resident, raised a family here, and was naturalized in 2007.

But large-scale immigration also comes with considerable social and political costs, and those must be accounted for. In November 2018, Hillary Clinton delivered a warning to Europeans that mass immigration was weakening democracy. “I think Europe needs to get a handle on migration, because that is what lit the flame,” Clinton said, referring to the upsurge of far-right populism destabilizing countries such as France and Hungary. “I admire the very generous and compassionate approaches that were taken, particularly by leaders like Angela Merkel, but I think it is fair to say Europe has done its part, and must send a very clear message—‘We are not going to be able to continue to provide refuge and support’—because if we don’t deal with the migration issue, it will continue to roil the body politic.”

Clinton’s assessment of the European political situation is accurate. According to recent poll numbers, 63 percent of French people believe too many immigrants are living in their country. One-third of the British people who voted in 2016 to leave the European Union cited immigration as their primary reason. In Germany, 38 percent rate immigration as the most important issue facing their country. Thanks in great part to their anti-immigration messages, populist parties now govern Italy, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.

And of course, anti-immigration sentiment was crucial to the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.

Immigration on a very large scale is politically stressful. Yet acknowledging that fact can be hazardous to mainstream politicians. The New York Times story on Clinton’s remarks quoted four scathing reactions from liberal interest groups and academics—and then for icy good measure balanced them with a single approving quote from an Italian politician who had hosted Trump’s former campaign chair, Steve Bannon, in Rome.

It wasn’t always this way, even on the left. As recently as 2015, the senator and presidential aspirant Bernie Sanders defended at least some immigration restrictions in language drawn from the immigration-skeptical tradition of organized labor. “What right-wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy,” Sanders said in an interview with Vox. “Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don’t believe in that. I think we have to raise wages in this country.” Even the famously cosmopolitan Barack Obama, in his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, lamented, “When I see Mexican flags waved at pro-immigration demonstrations, I sometimes feel a flush of patriotic resentment. When I’m forced to use a translator to communicate with the guy fixing my car, I feel a certain frustration.”

But the political rise of Donald Trump has radicalized many of his opponents on immigration. Some mainstream liberal commentators, such as Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times, have called for completely open borders. While not many Democrats have gone that far publicly, some—including most prominently the 2020 presidential hopefuls—have expressed ever greater unease about removing people who cross borders unauthorized. Julián Castro, the secretary of housing and urban development under Obama, has endorsed a pathway to citizenship for all immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. Senator Kamala Harris pledged not to vote to reopen the federal government in January unless the financing bill confirmed protection for Dreamers, young people who grew up in the United States without legal status. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand have called for abolishing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Gillibrand denounced the agency as a “deportation force”—as if it were possible to enforce immigration laws without deportation. While it would be destabilizing and impractical to remove all the people who have been living peaceably in this country for many years, it does not follow that any nonfelon who sets foot in the U.S. has a right to stay here.

In the fall of 2018, an unprecedentedly large caravan of would-be border crossers—peaking at 7,000 people—headed toward the United States from Central America. Trump demagogically seized on the caravan as a voting issue before the November midterm elections—and goaded many of his critics to equally inflammatory responses. “This whole caravan in the last week of the election is a giant lie. This is Trump’s Reichstag fire. It is a lie,” said a guest on MSNBC’s All In With Chris Hayes. But however manipulatively oversold, the caravan existed; it was not a lie. Thousands of people were indeed approaching the U.S. border, many hoping to force their way across by weight of numbers.

Demagogues don’t rise by talking about irrelevant issues. Demagogues rise by talking about issues that matter to people, and that more conventional leaders appear unwilling or unable to address: unemployment in the 1930s, crime in the 1960s, mass immigration now. Voters get to decide what the country’s problems are. Political elites have to devise solutions to those problems. If difficult issues go unaddressed by responsible leaders, they will be exploited by irresponsible ones.

Across the developed world, very high levels of immigration have coincided with widening class divisions, the discrediting of political and economic elites, and the rise of extremist politics. And immigration pressures will only intensify in the decades ahead, for reasons obscured by media coverage of immigrants as poor and desperate. That coverage isn’t entirely wrong. Many immigrants are poor and desperate, especially refugees fleeing war or famine. But immigration is accelerating so rapidly in the 21st century less because of pervading misery than because life on our planet is improving for so many people. It costs money to move—and more and more families can afford the investment to send a relative northward. “Every boat person I’ve met has been ambitious, urban, educated,” says Doug Saunders, a Canadian journalist who has reported extensively on global population movements. “They are very poor by European standards, but often comfortable by African and Middle Eastern ones.”

Since 1990, the number of human beings living in extreme poverty—defined as less than $2 a day—has declined by nearly two-thirds. Hundreds of millions of people have been lifted into a new global striver class, living on $10 to $20 a day or more. That comparative affluence allows the strivers to buy things once impossibly out of reach: air conditioners, smartphones, motorized vehicles. But the thing those strivers want more than anything else—the great golden ticket into a whole new life—is exit from the less successful countries of the global South into the more successful countries of the global North.

One-quarter of young male Egyptians would work abroad if they could, according to the Egyptian government’s own statistical agency. More than half the populations of South Africa and Kenya wish to leave home, according to the Pew Research Center, as do three-quarters of Nigerians and Ghanaians. In all these countries, it is the best-educated who most yearn to leave.

We are talking here about astonishingly large numbers of potential immigrants—large and fast-growing. Egypt will add 50 million people to its population over the next three decades. Bangladesh will reach 200 million people; Pakistan, 300 million. The populations of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, countries that have already sent so many people northward, will rise by 50 percent by 2050, to more than 47 million. Twenty-six African countries will double their population by the time today’s college seniors celebrate their 50th birthday. Altogether, the population of Africa in 2050 will almost equal the entire population of the world in 1950: 2.5 billion people.

Since 1990, the number of human beings living in extreme poverty—defined as less than $2 a day—has declined by nearly two-thirds. Hundreds of millions of people have been lifted into a new global striver class, living on $10 to $20 a day or more. That comparative affluence allows the strivers to buy things once impossibly out of reach: air conditioners, smartphones, motorized vehicles. But the thing those strivers want more than anything else—the great golden ticket into a whole new life—is exit from the less successful countries of the global South into the more successful countries of the global North.

One-quarter of young male Egyptians would work abroad if they could, according to the Egyptian government’s own statistical agency. More than half the populations of South Africa and Kenya wish to leave home, according to the Pew Research Center, as do three-quarters of Nigerians and Ghanaians. In all these countries, it is the best-educated who most yearn to leave.

We are talking here about astonishingly large numbers of potential immigrants—large and fast-growing. Egypt will add 50 million people to its population over the next three decades. Bangladesh will reach 200 million people; Pakistan, 300 million. The populations of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, countries that have already sent so many people northward, will rise by 50 percent by 2050, to more than 47 million. Twenty-six African countries will double their population by the time today’s college seniors celebrate their 50th birthday. Altogether, the population of Africa in 2050 will almost equal the entire population of the world in 1950: 2.5 billion people.

Hundreds of millions of people will want to become Americans. Only a relatively small number realistically can. Who should choose which ones do? According to what rules? How will those rules be enforced? The Trump-era debate about a wall misses the point. The planet of tomorrow will be better educated, more mobile, more networked. Huddling behind a concrete barrier will not hold the world at bay when more and more of that world can afford a plane ticket. If Americans want to shape their own national destiny, rather than have it shaped by others, they have decisions to make now.

But at present, the most important immigration decisions are made through an ungainly and ill-considered patchwork of policies. Almost 70 percent of those who settle lawfully in the United States gained entry because they were close relatives of previously admitted immigrants. Many of those previously admitted immigrants were in their turn relatives of someone who had arrived even earlier.

Every year some 50,000 people are legally admitted by lottery. Others buy their way in, by investing a considerable sum. In almost every legal immigration category, the United States executes its policy less by conscious decision than by excruciating delay. The backlog of people whose immigration petitions have been approved for entry but who have not yet been admitted is now nearing 4 million. (Only spouses and children are exempted from annual numerical caps.)

This system just accreted, reaction upon reaction, yesterday’s crisis leading to today’s improvisation, in turn laying the groundwork for tomorrow’s crisis.

Under present immigration policies, the U.S. population will exceed 400 million by 2050. Nobody is seriously planning for such population growth—building the schools and hospitals these people will need, planning for the traffic they will generate. Nobody is thinking very hard about the environmental consequences, either. The average American causes the emission of almost 17 tons of carbon dioxide each year, quadruple the annual emissions of the average Mexican and 45 times the emissions of the average Bangladeshi.

The question before the United States and other advanced countries is not: Immigration, yes or no? In a mobile world, there will inevitably be quite a lot of movement of people. Immigration is not all or nothing. The questions to ask are: How much? What kind?

Too little immigration, and you freeze your country out of the modern world. Too much, or the wrong kind, and you overstress your social-insurance system—and possibly upend your democracy. Choose well, and you build a stronger, richer country for both newcomers and the long-settled. Choose badly, and you aggravate inequality and inflame intergroup hostility. How we choose will shape the future that will in its turn shape us.

If Liberals Won’t Enforce Borders, Fascists Will

 
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