Americans must set aside their obsessions to fix immigration

Americans must set aside their obsessions to fix immigration
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Mass migration poses an existential challenge to the West. Driven by climate change, corruption, conflict, and poverty, hundreds of millions of people would like to migrate, mostly from the developing world to America and Europe. The Middle East remains war torn, India lacks adequate water resources, and the Sahel bordering the Sahara grows more arid and has an exploding population. Latin America, always dependent on resource and agricultural exports, grows significantly slower than other regions, feeding the political instability and organized crime driving Venezuelans to Spain and Guatemalans to America.

Casting an undisciplined eye at failing economies, many analysts are advocating international aid for development, to promote democracy, and to weed out corruption. Unfortunately, globalization and modern technology make those impractical. Unlike a century ago, those societies must build export industries to buy tractors, industrial machinery, computers, and technology. Gone are the days when reliance on plows, draught animals, and artisan workbenches could create prosperity.

Yet trade tensions among America, Europe, and China demonstrate that there are hardly enough manufacturing jobs available to go around. The ascent of President TrumpDonald John TrumpSchiff blasts Trump for making 'false claims' about Russia intel: 'You've betrayed America. Again.' Poll: Sanders leads 2020 Democratic field with 28 percent, followed by Warren and Biden More than 6 in 10 expect Trump to be reelected: poll MORE in America and nationalist movements in Europe owe much of that electoral success to the shortage of viable factories and competition from immigrants for employment.


Building universities and technical programs to train enough workers across the broad range of skills necessary to compete with the likes of finance and technology experts is even more daunting in many parts of the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, and Asia than it is in the poorer counties of Mississippi or West Virginia. For the same reason that rural Americans must migrate to more prosperous cities, many people in developing nations must move to metropoles to escape poverty.

To avert pressures for migration north, climate change will compel huge investments to save coastal cities and arable land that the governments of developing nations can ill afford, and aid from richer nations will hardly be sufficient. Global temperatures will make cities closer to the equator like Abu Dhabi and New Delhi potentially uninhabitable without modern air conditioning that is all pervasive and terribly expensive.

Knocking out corruption requires establishing disciplined democracies where bribery is not merely illegal but the object of social ostracization. But the values necessary to sustain resilient democracies are not cultural universals. Strong democracies are scarce outside of Western Europe, North America, and Japan. As Chinese autocracy shows, we cannot presume to offer the only models of economic development.

The bottom line is that no matter how effective American and European border enforcement might become, and no matter how easily the courts might permit the authorities to send illegal migrants and asylum seekers back, they will keep coming. In North America, if they cannot cross the Rio Grande, they will risk ocean travel in the Gulf of Mexico just as Africans risk travel in the Mediterranean Sea to get to Europe.

Declining birth rates in America and Europe pose an obstacle to getting the economic growth needed to support aging populations without bankrupting national governments. Consequently, more immigrants are needed but also those with skills and who will embrace our values. We must recognize that some potential immigrants are not very assimilable, which is terribly difficult juxtaposed against freedom of religion, speech, and modern consciousness about confronting racism.


Nevertheless, seeking new citizens who embrace democratic values of tolerance, race and gender equality, independence, and respect for free markets, and not establishing insular communities that are hostile to those values, should take precedence over allocating visas merely on the basis of economic expediency or personal distress.

All that is even more difficult when the hard left is attacking the founders of our civilizations for sins endemic to human existence more than a century ago, and the hard right resorts to fear mongering and race baiting. What are the values that democracies offer newcomers when we ourselves are engaged in destructive cultural civil wars?

It is time to address the world as it is today, messy in upheavals and riddled with injustice as it always has been. However, to welcome the afflicted, and for newcomers and those Americans and Europeans with longer roots to all prosper together, we must set aside our hateful obsessions with sins past and fight less among ourselves.

Peter Morici is an economist and professor at the University of Maryland.