Give Me Your Unskilled European Immigrants, Yearning to Breathe Free

With a lousy economy, xenophobia on the rise, and increasingly autocratic politics, Europeans are trying to get out. So why won’t America let them in?


The European Union is paying the price for its slow recovery from the global financial crisis. Its unemployment rates remain sky high, and young people continue to draw down the wealth of their parents. Its politics have fractured, with extremists streaming in through the cracks. And those who reject the political system altogether are trying to spread fear throughout the continent, resulting in a backlash with authoritarian overtones. The time is ripe for emigration, and the only question is which countries outside Europe will be smart enough to take note.

Even if the EU didn’t light the fuse that set the financial world aflame, its faulty institutions and flawed policies have added fuel to the fire. The Stability and Growth Pact, with rules on budget deficits that even France and Germany ignored, is a bad joke. The eurozone is a currency union that exists on a wing and a prayer, without the basic pillars of fiscal union, banking union, and frictionless mobility in the labor market.

As deficits ballooned in struggling eurozone countries trying to make their export markets more competitive, their fellow members lobbied against devaluing the euro and preached austerity instead. Even today, as the eurozone slips into deflation, the European Central Bank is handcuffed by its more inflation-phobic members, as though 3 percent inflation would somehow be worse than another year with tens of millions of people unemployed. The results have been doldrums and desperation.

And now, just as things were supposed to be getting better, the eurozone has plunged into crisis again. Greece and Germany are at loggerheads, and growth across the continent may be paralyzed for months or even years while the world waits for the uncertainty surrounding the euro to subside. If the present is gloomy, the future is just plain opaque.

Against this backdrop, it’s hardly surprising to see a return of Europe’s ugliest ghosts: xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, fascism, and virtually every other ideology that preys on the disillusioned and disempowered. Despite Angela Merkel’s personal pledge to protect Germany’s Jews and Muslims, or François Hollande’s promise to fight racism and anti-Semitism even before the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the continent has become an even less friendly place for many minorities. Why should they stay?

One reason is that, unlike in earlier times, their would-be new homes have become far less inviting. Before World War II, the most popular destinations for Europeans were the United States, Argentina, Canada, Brazil, and Australia. After the war and other subsequent conflicts, refugees also found new homes in these countries. But today, all these countries have more restrictive immigration policies. Argentina and Brazil have become net senders rather than receivers of people. The United States has relied for years on seasonal flows of undocumented workers, who only now may finally have a path to citizenship. Only Canada has substantially increased its immigration rate — at least according to official data — during the past three decades, in part to fill job openings in fast growing industries like energy and mining:

Yet now is the perfect time for these countries to once again roll out the welcome mat. Though Argentina and Brazil are faltering economically, Australia, Canada, and the United States are all creating jobs at a decent clip. Argentina may yet turn around too, if this year’s presidential elections bring saner policies and a return to rapid growth. There is no better time to open the doors to new sources of labor, especially to migrants who appreciate pluralistic democracy but have found that they can’t take it for granted.

Now, skeptics might argue that the migrants most likely to leave Europe today won’t necessarily include another crop of scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs, like the ones who spearheaded the postwar boom in the United States and elsewhere. But cherry-picking new arrivals, which used to be done via points systems but is now often based on matches to potential employers, is actually quite a hit-or-miss affair.

The reason is in the numbers: Each immigrant stands atop a pyramid of his or her descendants, all of whom may well contribute to the economic growth of their new countries; it’s not just the initial immigrant who matters. For example, in the long term, a software programmer in San Jose who never had children might add less to American economic output than a dishwasher in New York whose sons and daughters carry on a strong work ethic. And it doesn’t make sense to discount the contributions of future generations versus those of immigrants; to do so would be equivalent to saying our own children had less of a claim on economic well-being than we do today.

There’s simply no way to know for sure which migrants will make the biggest difference. If anything, the decision to migrate and build a living from scratch is the best signal people can send of their aptitude for success. In fact, immigrants are twice as likely as native-born Americans to start businesses, and they account for a hugely disproportionate share of job growth from new companies. Moreover, it’s hard to imagine anyone valuing inclusiveness and personal security more than someone who has felt those values erode — even in the EU. If there is any question that might make a difference to migrants’ success, it is how easily they might become happily integrated members of their newfound communities.

In the United States, we seem blind to these simple insights. In 2013, the most recent year with publicly available statistics, about 70,000 refugees arrived on our shores, and about 25,000 were granted asylum. Those numbers — tiny shares of our population of 320 million and of the 45 million refugees worldwide in 2013, including many from conflicts we started — have barely changed in decades. And they also represent a tiny share of the more than 1 million people granted permanent residency in the United States each year.

It’s too early to describe European migrants as refugees, but some of them may have non-economic reasons for leaving. In comparison to the tens of thousands of refugees whom the United States rejects year after year, they may find integration rather easier; after all, Europeans will be coming from democracies where English is spoken widely. Indeed, many of them were perfectly integrated until their communities came under threat. Perhaps the prospect of their arrival — and its potential to bolster the economy — will finally turn some of those restrictive immigration policies around.


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