Immigration is now the lowest common denominator of politics and the connective tissue between Brexit, Trump and the surprise conservative election victory in Australia. The specifics vary from Victor Orban's explicit anti-Semitism in Hungary to Nigel Farage's subtler UK dog whistle of 'take back our country', but they all invoke the fear that someone who isn't like you is coming for your job, your daughter, and your sense of identity.
Trump's dehumanising 'infestation' rhetoric and the images of migrant kids lying drowned on European beaches and locked in Mexican border cages, makes it easy to slip into moral outrage mode and reflexively oppose anti-immigration policies. But unfortunately, the reality is that the developed world does need to have a proper and nuanced debate about immigration; and that debate is currently being swamped by a cacophony of inflammatory populist noise.
The facts are that both the US and the UK are increasingly diverse. America self-identifies as a nation of immigrants, but the Origins Act of 1924 severely restricted their flow, resulting in only 5% of US citizens being foreign born in 1960. Those were the good old days for those who object to the browning of America. With the repeal of the Origins Act in 1965, immigration gradually increased to the point that foreign borns now account for 15% of the US population.
With current immigration levels, the US will be a majority-minority country by the early 2040s and stopping immigration entirely only delays that milestone a few years because of birth rate differentials. That's why Trump could tap into the sentiment expressed by nearly 50% of white Americans in a 2016 poll that 'things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country'. Populists like Trump don't get elected by talking about marginal issues, instead they exploit the things that matter the most, and increasingly, that's immigration.
The UK statistics tell an almost identical story. The UK's foreign-born population has risen from 5% in 1960 to over 14% in 2017. John Cleese's claim that London is no longer an English city had a whiff of hypocritical xenophobia about it, but factually he wasn't far off. If you look at the population of inner London, 43% are now foreign born and nearly 30% are foreign nationals, turning London, for better or worse, into a truly global city.
In a rational world, immigration policy would be treated as two distinct but connected issues, with the first being economic migration. UN projections show that, absent immigration, by 2050 Germany's working-age population will drop by 17%, China's by 20%, and Japan's by 29%, with these demographic shifts putting immense pressure on social programs. The US is slightly better off but would still experience a 5% drop over the next 30 years without immigration.
Stripped of political baggage, economic immigration policy should simply identify the level and mix of workers required to sustain economic growth. You then subtract the demographic trend line to determine target immigration levels. In this calculus, immigration doesn't just add units of labour capacity. There's plenty of evidence that US immigrants disproportionately create more companies and win more Nobel prizes, producing a positive multiplier effect; although those benefits do tend to accrue to either the immigrants themselves or the rich who profit from their cheap labour. The natural execution mechanism for a well-managed economic immigration policy is the type of points-based ranking system favoured by Canada and Australia.
It's not inherently immoral to restrict economic migration, but there's also an important cultural component to it. Although the Japanese population is rapidly ageing and shrinking, they've made the political decision to place a high value on a homogenous society, and hence are investing hugely in automation to moderate the need for immigration. You can call that racist, but it demonstrates that each country has its own absorption capacity that determines the level of immigration it believes it can tolerate without risking social unrest.
Where the moral aspect of immigration does come in is when you consider the second dimension; refugees from war and famine and asylum seekers who fear for their personal safety. Of course, the two dimensions aren't completely independent. Syrians bombed out of their homes by Assad can have both a legitimate fear for their life and concerns about their future economic prospects. Dealing with the ebb and flow of these moral migrants raises the question of which countries will shoulder the burden. That can be a toxic political issue as Angela Merkel found out when she compassionately welcomed a million refugees to Germany in 2015 and then paid the electoral price, with over 70% of Germans wanting tougher restrictions on refugees and 40% saying that immigration is now their #1 voting issue.
Both economic and moral migrants need to be accommodated within the overall absorption rate, but it isn't an immutable constant. Historically, America has been able to integrate wave after wave of immigrants and have their new identity transcend ethnic and nationalist baggage. Within a generation, most new Americans are passing Norman Tebbit's cricket test. Indeed, you can make the case that the ability to assimilate increasing numbers of immigrants and make them productive without creating social unrest will be a key source of national competitive advantage in the mid-21st century.
But it's not easy. There's plenty of evidence that diverse teams produce better results in many areas of life from business to academia, but working in those teams is also less comfortable for their members. Assuming the same is true for nation states, strong persuasive political leadership is required to make the case that the disruption is worth it. On the flipside, diversity without assimilation creates its own long-term structural problems that can lower the absorption rate. Does anyone think we would still be talking about sectarian songs in Scottish football if we didn't have segregated Catholic schools in the West of Scotland to perpetuate centuries-old tribalism?
The 21st-century reality is that most immigrants are going to come from cultures that are distant and different and that each country can only assimilate a finite number; so, we need to be able to debate that number without pointing fingers and screaming racist.
As if that debate wasn't hard enough, immigration – particularly in the US – gets further complicated by the issue of legality. Again, the facts don't lie. After a decade of declining illegal border crossings, Trump has created a self-fulfilling prophecy of border chaos by cutting aid to many unstable Central American countries. The result has been over 70,000 illegal crossings per month this year, with the majority being Central Americans rather than Mexicans. This surge has swamped the capacity of both the border patrol and the court system to deal with them.
The migrant caravans winding through Mexico have become political totems, but they're not just figments of Fox News' imagination. Asylum claims have also spiked to 30%, and while many are undoubtedly legitimate, others are economic migrants who have been coached by NGOs on what to say to minimise the risk of immediate deportation. The Trump administration's reaction has been a marked shift from 'catch and release' to 'catch and hold', and that is why there are now a record 53,000 migrants being held in US detention centres.
The result of this policy shift has been political polarisation and the eradication of immigration as a bipartisan issue in the US. As Trump has amped up his rhetoric, many Democrats have radicalised in the opposite direction by rejecting any sort of enforcement as immoral, a change from the days when organised-labour ties made Democrats broadly anti-immigrant. Unfortunately, this radicalisation is playing straight into Trump's hands as a 2020 campaign issue. As journalist David Frum recently pointed out, 'if liberals insist that only fascists enforce borders, then voters will hire fascists to do the job liberals refuse to do'.
As a legal US immigrant, I believe we need stricter, but also more compassionate, enforcement. Because of the harsh nature of Trump's enforcement tactics, many on the left now claim a moral exemption that justifies ignoring the law and the default for Democratic presidential candidates is now to support 'sanctuary cities' that actively protect illegal immigrants. But what would their reaction be if a Democratic Congress passed strict gun control laws only to see Republican-controlled cities openly flout them because they disagreed? Yes, the enforcement tactics are reprehensible, but if you buy into the idea that every society has a natural absorption rate, then every illegal who is rewarded with the right to remain crowds out a well-educated tech worker from Bangalore or a stateless Rohingya refugee who wants to settle in America.
Comprehensive reform also needs to accept that the genie of illegal immigration can't be put back in the bottle. Rather than mass deportations, there needs to be a path to citizenship for the over 10 million illegals in the US, two-thirds of whom have been here for more than a decade. But in parallel, the Democrats need to accept that we should stop perpetuating the issue by actively preventing new arrivals, taking an aggressive approach to removing those who recently jumped the fence, and ending creeping naturalisation by not issuing state driving licenses to undocumented immigrants. That is the only sort of two-sided reform deal that has a hope in hell of getting bipartisan support. If I ignore the mouth that the words came out of, I can't disagree with Trump's recent statement that 'I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally'.
Despite the current political dysfunction, now is the time to address the immigration issue because it's not going to get any easier in the future. The World Bank estimates that, by 2050, climate change will create hundreds of millions and possibly as high as a billion new migrants as swathes of the world disappear under the waves or become uninhabitable, creating both economic and moral reasons to rethink our approach and raise our absorption rate.
The to-do list is certainly daunting, but we can't let the extremists on both sides define the debate and weaponise the issue. Immigration reform demands moderation and bipartisanship, which are obviously in short supply on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the US, we need to fix legal immigration by ending visa lotteries and limiting the family chain migration that currently accounts for 70% of legal entrants. We also need to tackle Central American migration at the source by stabilising the countries they are fleeing from and recognising that rising immigration is just one more reason to tackle climate change. But we also need to simultaneously strengthen borders, improve workplace enforcement, invest in the infrastructure to clear the backlog of four million legal applicants, and make asylum a quick, rigorous and fair process. We also need to offer those who are already well integrated into US society a qualified right to remain.
Finally, it's critical that we celebrate diversity and neuter white nationalism by severing the last links between national identity and ethnicity. As a country built on ideas, America should be in an ideal position to make that transition. Rural white Midwesterners need help appreciating that it's a source of strength that the New York Borough of Queens is the most ethnically diverse place on the planet, with nearly 140 languages spoken in an area of just over 100 square miles.
Despite Trump's 'murderers and rapists' characterisation, the data is crystal clear that immigrants make excellent citizens. They commit less crime, are less likely to become addicted, are less likely to own guns, and are generally more likely to act like strivers who want to create a better life for themselves and their families. Celebrating the upside of diversity is how you raise the absorption rate and how Canada has managed to get to 22% foreign born without immigration becoming a hot button issue. Although to be fair, Canada doesn't have to deal with hundreds of thousands of Americans illegally jumping the fence from Minnesota into Manitoba – although that may change if Trump gets re-elected.
I'm an American by choice and I want to live in a country that lives up to the ideals of the Statue of Liberty. A country that is a compassionate haven for the truly persecuted but also a beacon for the aggressively entrepreneurial. Post-Brexit, the UK will also need to decide what sort of country it wants to be. Will it pull up the drawbridge and embrace Japanese insularity and declare 'we're full', or can it pivot to Canadian openness by welcoming and integrating a new generation of economic and moral migrants?
It's depressingly clear which way the political wind is currently blowing. In the US, a recent Harris poll showed that over 80% of registered voters want to reduce immigration by at least a third. So, to return to David Frum, the gloomy 2020 reality for the US is that if the Democrats can't move to the centre and embrace both enforcement and reform, the electorate will once again vote for the candidate of enforcement.