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Immigration is cranking around the globe?

A long cycle

By David Leonhardt, NY Times

The global migration wave of the 21st century has little precedent. In much of North America, Europe and Oceania, the share of population that is foreign-born is at or near its highest level on record.

In the U.S., that share is approaching the previous high of 15 percent, reached in 1890. In some other countries, the immigration increases have been even steeper in the past two decades:

Source: Migration Policy Institute | By The New York Times

This scale of immigration tends to be unpopular with residents of the arrival countries. Illegal immigration is especially unpopular because it feeds a sense that a country’s laws don’t matter. But large amounts of legal immigration also bother many voters. Lower-income and blue-collar workers often worry that their wages will decline because employers suddenly have a larger, cheaper labor pool from which to hire.

As Tom Fairless, a Wall Street Journal reporter, wrote a few days ago:

Record immigration to affluent countries is sparking bigger backlashes across the world, boosting populist parties and putting pressure on governments to tighten policies to stem the migration wave. …

The backlashes repeat a long cycle in immigration policy, experts say. Businesses constantly lobby for more liberal immigration laws because that reduces their labor costs and boosts profits. They draw support from pro-business politicians on the right and pro-integration leaders on the left, leading to immigration policies that are more liberal than the average voter wants.

Bernie vs. the left

The political left in both Europe and the U.S. has struggled to come up with a response to these developments. Instead, many progressives have dismissed immigration concerns as merely a reflection of bigotry that needs to be defeated. And opposition to immigration is frequently infused with racism: Right-wing leaders like Marine Le Pen in France traffic in hateful stereotypes about immigrants. Some, like Donald Trump, tell outright lies.

But favoring lower levels of immigration is not inherently bigoted or always right-wing. The most prosperous large countries in Africa, Asia and South America tend to have much smaller foreign-born shares of their population. Japan and South Korea make it particularly difficult for foreigners to enter.

Source: Migration Policy Institute | By The New York Times

In earlier eras, the political left in the U.S. included many figures who worried about the effects of large-scale immigration. Both labor leaders and civil-rights leaders, for example, argued for moderate levels of immigration to protect the interests of vulnerable workers.

“There is a reason why Wall Street and all of corporate America likes immigration reform, and it is not, in my view, that they’re staying up nights worrying about undocumented workers in this country,” Bernie Sanders said in 2015. “What I think they are interested in is seeing a process by which we can bring low-wage labor of all levels into this country to depress wages for Americans, and I strongly disagree with that.”

Today, though, many progressives are uncomfortable with any immigration-skeptical argument. They have become passionate advocates of more migration and global integration, arguing — correctly — that immigrants usually benefit by moving from a lower-wage country to a higher-wage country. But immigration is not a free lunch any more than free trade is. It also has costs, including its burden on social services, as some local leaders, like Mayor Eric Adams of New York and officials in South Texas, have recently emphasized.

Rutte’s decision

With today’s left-leaning and centrist parties largely accepting of high levels of immigration, right-wing parties have become attractive to many voters who favor less immigration. The issue has fueled the rise of far-right nationalist parties in France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Finland and elsewhere, as Jason Horowitz of The Times explained in a recent article. Jason focuses on Spain, another country where the anti-immigration party is growing.

The latest case study is the Netherlands. The governing coalition there collapsed on Friday after centrist parties refused to accept part of the conservative prime minister’s plan to reduce migration. Rather than alter his plan, the prime minister, Mark Rutte, dissolved the government, setting up an election this fall.

Rutte, notably, is not a member of the far right. He is a mainstream Dutch conservative who has tried to marginalize the country’s extremist anti-immigrant party. Yet he came to believe that reducing immigration was “a matter of political survival” for his party, my colleagues Matina Stevis-Gridneff and Claire Moses reported.

Although the details are different, President Biden has also recently taken steps to reduce unauthorized immigration. So far, his new policy — which includes both more border enforcement and an expansion of legal pathways to apply for entry — appears to have reduced the surge of migration at the U.S.-Mexico border. Still, the issue clearly divides Biden’s party. Many liberal Democrats have criticized his policy as heartless and said the U.S. should admit more migrants, not fewer.

Democrats frequently like to point out the many ways in which Republicans are out of step with public opinion, including on abortion bans, the minimum wage, taxes on the wealthy and background checks for gun owners. Immigration cuts the other way, polls show. It is a subject on which much of the Democratic Party, like the political left in Europe, is in a different place than many voters.

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