Taking Back Immigration

The instant lesson of the US presidential election seemed to be about the power of Latino voters. But the meaning runs deeper and it is relevant to governments around the world.

Within hours of President Barack Obama’s re-election last month, a powerful belief took hold: that overwhelming support from Latino voters had helped secure his victory. Suddenly, the Republican Party, long identified with a hard line on immigrants, started talking about the need for comprehensive immigration reform. Pundits argued that if the Republicans resisted reform, they would lose the Latino vote for the next generation and be relegated to near-permanent opposition status.

This might or might not be true. But the meaning of the American election when it comes to immigration runs deeper than electoral expediency—and it bears lessons for governments around the world. The remarkable speed with which anti-immigrant positions buckled points to the fact that most Americans seek—above all—a rational approach to immigration. They want their political leaders to take responsibility for the issue rather than to run away from it.

When it comes to immigration, politicians usually are driven by fear—a fear that has become even more acute since the onset of the global financial crisis. The rise of extreme nationalists in places like Greece and Finland has reinforced the notion that talking about immigration, except to argue against it, is politically fraught. So politicians either address immigration in the context of border security and cultural identity, or they ignore it.

But they might well be misreading the concerns of their citizens. Voter reaction is often less about disliking immigrants than it is about a profound sense of frustration that governments have failed to create an immigration system that works: One that allows for the legal entry of needed workers, while preventing illegal entry; one that clamps down on exploitative employers; and one that provides resources to integrate immigrants into communities.

Voters might not like that some migrants enter their country illegally. But many find it equally or even more unconscionable that migrants are forced to live for decades in the shadows—or that children raised by immigrant parents could be deported to countries they have never seen before. When migration is undertaken in a legal, orderly way, the public supports it. A recent transatlantic survey by the German Marshall Fund found that while majorities in all countries were worried about illegal immigration, concern about legal immigration was low—with only 26% of European respondents expressing worry, and just 18% doing so in the United States.

Ceding the immigration debate to extremists has helped abet  another extraordinary distortion: Publics generally believe that the number of immigrants in their countries is far higher than it actually is. In the same German Marshall Fund survey, British respondents estimated a foreign-born population of 31.8%, when in fact just 11.3% of the population is actually foreign born. Americans estimated a foreign-born population of 37.8%, when the actual number is 12.5%. This false perception makes it even harder to have a reasonable debate about the issues.

Tackling migration-related challenges is a necessity regardless of whether one favours more or less immigration. Today, according to the UN, there are 214 million people living outside their country of birth, up from approximately 82 million in 1970. So even if not a single new person were to cross a border, the challenges would still be with us.

The reality of course is that many countries, especially those that constitute the OECD, will decide that they need more immigrants as their own populations age and shrink. Better, then, that they figure out how to do immigration well rather than outsource much of the process to smugglers and extremists. And in a world in which nearly half of migrants are now going from one developing country to another, the problems are no longer confined to the West.

The good news is that there have been important advances over the past decade in managing migration. Policymakers can draw on successful programs, for example, in how to integrate migrant children into educational systems. They can learn from how some countries are successfully matching the labour needs of their businesses with the skills of immigrants. Developing countries, meanwhile, are getting smarter about how to leverage the $406 billion that migrants will send home this year—by issuing diaspora bonds, for instance, or by creating targeted investment opportunities for their emigrants.

Many pivotal stakeholders also are advocating for a more rational immigration system. Labour unions, for instance, once known for their scepticism about immigration, are increasingly in favour of pro-immigration reforms. In fact, unions were a driving force behind last year’s Domestic Workers Convention that seeks to protect the rights of the world’s estimated 50-100 million domestic workers.

By supporting smart, progressive reforms, politicians should at least be able to neutralize the issue of immigration on election day, if not turn it to their advantage. More importantly, electoral politics aside, they will be helping craft better societies—ones whose politics are shaped by reasonable debate among citizens and not by the community-destroying actions of smugglers and extremists. This, after all, is what politics is all about.

This article first appeared on Project Syndicate in December 2012