After the Promised Land

LONDON – At the height of the Arab uprisings last spring, many Europeans were gripped by nightmare visions of a tsunami of migrants crashing against the continent’s shores. The wave never hit, but its specter fed a tenacious anti-immigrant populism that has concealed an important new trend: migration to Europe – and to the United States – has largely stalled. In many countries, more immigrants are leaving than are arriving, owing mainly to the economic crisis that has drained jobs in the West.

That reversal is one of the great under-reported stories of 2011 (and of the preceding two years), and the numbers are startling. Consider Spain, which is on track to lose more than a half-million residents by 2020. By contrast, between 2002 and 2008, Spain’s population grew by 700,000 a year, driven largely by immigration. The trends are similar elsewhere in Europe.

While this fact alone will not quiet opponents of immigration, it does give countries more breathing room to repair and strengthen badly broken systems for receiving and integrating newcomers. Although rapidly aging Western countries are unable to attract the immigrants they need, they allow millions who are already there to suffer discrimination and abuse. Detentions and deportations take place under sometimes terrible conditions. Meanwhile, the international community collectively fails to protect vast populations of vulnerable migrants, such as the millions stranded by the recent conflicts in North Africa.

Undoubtedly, rising anti-immigrant populism must be confronted. While polling suggests that attitudes are influenced more by ethnicity than religion, both help to define identities and mindsets. Political parties in France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands (to name a few) have run successful campaigns that scapegoat immigrants.