WASHINGTON – I recently read a well crafted article about immigration in both Europe and the USA. It pointed out that, while there is real concern, (bordering on hysteria), about too many (unwanted) immigrants arriving, (Syrians in Europe, Central Americans in the US), the fact is that both Europe and the US actually need more immigrants.
They need them because their populations are declining. And this has many negative consequences. In Europe there is a really bad combination of fewer and fewer births, while the people live a lot longer. In simple terms, this means that, because of the way most welfare programs are structured, over time fewer and fewer active adults will have to take care of (read: pay for) the needs of tens of millions of retirees who will live to be 80 or older. This is already unsustainable. Large deficits and growing national debts are the tangible effect of growing social costs, while the tax base that is supposed to finance them is shrinking.
Since cutting benefits to the retirees is politically impossible, all this means that, unless this negative fertility trend is reversed, the only help can come from promoting more immigration.
But public opinion in Europe and the US sees immigration as a problem, and not as a solution. So, are the Europeans and to a lesser extent the Americans blind? Do they fail to see that they need more immigrants?
What kind of immigrants?
No, they are not blind. Indeed, they see very well. The fact is that while more immigration in principle seems a great solution to a very real demographic crisis, most of the immigrants that try to get to Europe and America are viewed as a problem rather than a solution.
I do not believe that the Europeans would dislike the Syrian refugees now arriving in droves, if most of them would come with good academic qualifications, managerial and language skills, and a natural proclivity to quickly start innovative businesses.
But these are not the immigrants getting to Italy, Hungary or Austria. Beyond the current Syrian wave, all these refugees, along with other economic immigrants, come from poor countries in Africa and the Middle East. On average, they have little or no education. Besides, they usually bring along with them habits and traditions that do not mix well with Western countries. And, finally, many of them are Muslims. And because of this they are looked at with some suspicion by mostly Christian societies.
US turning against immigrants
In the US the problem is less severe but not insignificant. Indeed, in this pre-election season, the instant popularity of anti-immigrant political candidates like Donald Trump proves that there is a sizable portion of America that would like to stop immigration altogether; and in fact would like to kick out millions who are here illegally.
The point is that many of the immigrants who get to Europe, and to a lesser extent America, are viewed by those societies as people who want to take advantage of the social services available in France, Germany or California, as opposed to having a desire to come to the West to work hard and integrate themselves into the main stream. In other words, the West is a place where you go “to get something”, as opposed to the place that allows the opportunity “to do something”.
Those who come are not assets
Of course Italy and Germany will need immigrants. They really will. But, right now, the Italians look and they see hundreds of thousands of poor souls who arrive on overloaded vessels from Africa every year. These are not would-be entrepreneurs. These are people in real need. They need shelter, food, medical attention, later on education, jobs, (do keep in mind that Italy has a 12.4% unemployment rate), and more.
In other words, these people –be they genuine refugees or economic immigrants– cost money. Who knows, later on they may become productive workers and eventually even exemplary citizens. But the road from total poverty (and likely marginalization) to full integration, assuming it actually exists, is long and arduous.
Right now, most Europeans and some Americans are really scared. They do not want in their midst needy people who will have a hard time blending in. In this respect, America does better than Europe. Along with poor people from Guatemala, we get highly educated Indians, Koreans, Chinese, and some Europeans. These immigrants come with advanced degrees and, in some instances, valuable business skills. They enrich the business and scientific community. They are assets.
Unfortunately, this is not the majority of new arrivals. Yes, immigration may be indeed the cure for the demographic crisis. But not all immigrants will do. And this is, and will continue to be, a problem.