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Immigration is good for us

The Mexicans had a joke about ex-President Donald Trump’s planned wall along its border with the US. “It’s not being built to keep Mexicans out of the US; it’s built to keep Trump out of Mexico!”  If this be so, then President Joe Biden can relax. No longer is there the need to dismantle the wall built by Trump.

Today in the US media reports say that Mexico has to deal with another migrant “caravan” of fleeing Central Americans pouring into the south of the country, hoping to somehow crash their way into the US. However, the Mexicans have reacted sensibly and humanely to the caravan. They are encouraging the “caravaners” to go no further and find work in Mexico’s underdeveloped southern states. Those applying for asylum have been offered temporary work permits with immediate effect. (Colombia has recently implanted the same policy- and found it effective- to deal with its large influx from neighbouring Venezuela, reports yesterday’s Financial Times.)

The Mexicans know from their history that development is the cure for migration. Thanks to economic growth the Mexican exodus to America has been reduced to a trickle. Trump didn’t talk about this. He used the Mexicans as a crowd-pleasing scapegoat for a phenomenon that no longer exists. He said that, “they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

The press have an unfortunate tendency to avoid the good news. For example, the increase in immigration globally is largely in line with the growth in world population. It was 3% in 1990 and in 2020 was 3.5%.

It needn’t be so divisive, given good political, religious and media leadership. In New York where 36% are foreign born the city provides ID cards for illegal migrants. There’s free health insurance for the children of illegals. Public universities provide tuition subsidies for illegals- as happens in 22 other states.

How many people are aware that in the presidential election when Hilary Clinton ran against Trump the counties bordering Mexico and most affected by Mexican immigration voted for Clinton?

The fact is Immigration can be good for us- if we have a positive attitude. Muslim Turkey is one of the most hospitable of all countries. It demonstrates what human kindness combined with self-economic interest can do. A survey carried out at the peak of the Syrian refugee crisis five years ago found that 73% of respondents believed that accepting and supporting refugees was a humanitarian mission. Mainly Christian Canada likewise welcomes immigrants and refugees, both skilled and unskilled- and they settle in.

There are many things we don’t understand about the public reaction to and the cost/benefits of immigration, but some important aspects have been researched in depth:

  • Three-fourths of Americans believe immigration increases crime. In fact, first generation immigrants are less criminally inclined than local populations and the crime rate for both locals and immigrants has been decreasing almost everywhere for a decade now. During 1992-2016 the violent crime rate almost halved, although in some countries the corona virus appears to have pushed the crime rate back up. Presumably this is because of the sharp rise in unemployment.
  • Because over the last five years refugees have been coming mainly from the Middle East there’s a widespread assumption in the US and Europe that would-be terrorists are hiding among them. But not a single known terrorist has entered the US from the Mexican border. 75% of American terrorist incidents have been carried out by locally born whites. In 2015 there were 211 terror attacks in Europe but 65% were by separatists and 17% by jihadists.
  • The costs of a restrictive immigration policy are high. Low skilled immigrants have contributed significantly to economic growth. They gravitate to growth areas. Without them growth would be markedly less.
  •  Although East European countries are finding they are seriously short of labor they won’t open their doors to Syrians and Afghanis. (To be fair one should point out that Poland has accepted one million Ukrainian refugees.) Japan, facing a serious population decline, at last has announced a partial and limited opening to immigrants, despite popular unwillingness. Unless countries open up they may well end up confronting the question where will the money come from to look after an ageing population which no longer pays much tax?
  • Job-seeking, so-called “economic”, immigrants (not refugees) only come to a country if there are large numbers of job vacancies. The grapevine keeps them informed. When job opportunities dry up most stop coming.
  • There’s a vigorous debate among economists whether immigration hurts the wages of locals, particularly less educated, less skilled, natives.  One respected study by George Borjas of Harvard University suggested that a 10% increase in immigration lowers the wage of the native worker by 3%. But other economists say Borjas has ignored the steady rise of women entering the work force, which has been a major factor in lowering wages. In fact most immigrants move to cities that have booming economies where their overall contribution is a plus and all boats are lifted.
  • It’s the sending countries that lose most. It’s their most motivated workers who emigrate. On the other hand their remittances help the balance of trade and investments in their home countries.

There’s still much to be done to make immigration more palatable- an end to policies that stress multiculturalism at the expense of integration, which has led to ghettoization, which increases crime and degrades schools. And there is a need for job retraining for locals so that lower-paid immigrants don’t leap over the heads of unemployed locals.

Every since the Kissinger Commission that evaluated Central American needs at the end of the local civil wars in 1984 there has been talk of the need for the US to give significant amounts of aid to get these countries out of the rut of poverty. But not much has been forthcoming, although when it does arrive it often produces sterling results. I once was taken to a farm project in El Salvador run by the International Fund for Agricultural Development that was doing really well. None of the farmers wanted to head north. Their neighbors did. This kind of aid is what the US should concentrate on, on a large scale. IFAD’s productive work can be copied. 

According to a well-researched and perceptive book “The Age of Walls” by Tim Marshall, each wall constructed in different parts of the world tells a story.

There’s the wall between Israel and Palestine that provokes violent thinking more than it reduces it.

On India’s frontier with Bangladesh is the longest border fence in the world- 2,500 miles of it. It was built primarily to stem the exodus of poorer Bangladeshis to better-off India. But now fast developing Bangladesh is richer per head than India and the wall is becoming an anachronism.

India has another fence- the 340 mile long barrier along the disputed Line of Control inside Kashmir, a region both India and Pakistan say is their territory. “It stands as a fortified monument to the enmity between two nuclear-armed nations”.

In Europe some eastern countries have joined the fence builders. The Syrian war migrant crisis of 2015 prompted a wave of nationalism. Rather than agree to “burden-sharing” which if it had been implanted would have given each EU country only a modest number of migrants each, these countries preferred to say “no”, taking in barely a handful. Hungary built fences along its border with Serbia and Croatia. Slovenia erected a fence along its border with Croatia, Macedonia along its Greek border and Austria along its border crossings with Slovenia and Italy.  

The fences have insured that the Mediterranean countries where the refugees land in their rickety boats have had to bear the most heavy load. Now the Syrian migration has been reduced to a trickle and African migration has slowed dramatically, but still the fences remain. But it’s unlikely there will be more large-scale wars in the Middle East. Even the one remaining, Yemen, has produced few refugees Europe-bound.

The African stream has long been over-magnified. Observers talk about Africa’s population increase and how this must inevitably lead to more northward migration. I wrote my first feature article about this in 1973 in the London Times (plus a series about how to find alternatives to immigration that used native European and US labor more effectively) and it has been going on ever since, but in fairly modest numbers. There’s still time to help Africa develop at a faster rate than it’s doing (much of it is doing rather well) and turn it into another Mexico where there are jobs and people prefer to stay at home.

Like Trump, right wing politicians in Europe have raised the specter of endless immigration, from Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. It was this that propelled the idea of Brexit to the forefront of the political debate. Without the hysteria over immigration Britain would still be in the European Union.

There’s still much to be done to make immigration more palatable, in particular an end to policies that stress multiculturalism at the expense of integration which has led to ghettoization which increases crime and degrades schools; a minimum wage set at a higher level than at present and job-retraining for locals so that immigrants, accepting lower wages, don’t leap over the heads of unemployed locals.  

On balance immigration is a good thing, although a sudden mass of refugees escaping war can be difficult to integrate. But Germany took in a million mainly Syrian and Afghani refugees and, although there have been exceptions- some increase in sexual crimes by frustrated young male immigrants- it has been regarded as a successful effort even by more conservative inclined Germans. 

Fences and walls are not necessary. Mostly they are manifestations of superficial thinking. The Mexicans are right to tell a good joke!

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Jonathan Power

Jonathan Power has been an international foreign affairs columnist for over 40 years and has interviewed over 70 of of the world's most famous and influential presidents, prime ministers, and political and literary icons including Ignacio Lula Da Silva, Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Willy Brandt, Julius Nyerere, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Paul McCartney, Mario Vargas Llosa, Eldridge Cleaver, Jimmy Carter, Olusegan Obasanjo, Georgio Arbatov, Dilma Rousseff, Olof Palme, Helmut Schmidt, Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, Jose Saramago, Ben Okri, Manmohan Singh, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Barbara Ward, Valeria Rezende, Pranab Mukherjee, Ben Mkapa, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Pervez Musharraf, Imran Khan, George Weah and Angela Davis. Many of these were full-page broadsheet interviews. For 17 years Jonathan Power wrote a weekly column on foreign affairs for the International Herald Tribune. He has also been a frequent guest columnist for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. He has written eight books on foreign affairs and, in his early days as a journalist, made films for the BBC, one of which won the Silver Medal at the Venice Film Festival. Previous to his journalistic career, he worked on the staff of Martin Luther King. Jonathan has probably been printed more times in American newspapers than any other European. He is also listed in Who's Who.

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