Debates about immigration nowadays tend to concentrate on the impact newcomers have on social cohesion. Advocates of a more open policy argue that populations are aging and workforces are diminishing, so greater immigration is needed to sustain high living standards. Their opponents focus on the disruptive effects of immigration, particularly among the most vulnerable citizens in countries that already suffer from high unemployment. But what is needed is a deeper and more global perspective than either side allows.
Between 1800 and 1950 Europe's population increased by 269%, from 203 million to 547 million, as the continent experienced extraordinary economic change, social upheaval, and political turmoil. Emigration from Europe was the continent's critical safety valve, without which the pressure placed on populations and states would have been unsustainable.
During these 150 years, Europeans emigrated en masse to Latin America, driving its population up by 50 million, to North America, which saw an increase of 75 million, and to Oceania, where the population rose by 11 million. Surplus rural folk could find land to till in the New World's vast frontiers or industrial employment in its growing cities. The most adventurous and ambitious could seek fame and fortune in the colonies of Africa and Asia.
But emigration was more than merely a safety valve; it contributed to Europe's material and cultural wealth as well. The remittances of Italian seasonal laborers in Argentina prevented backward rural villages in southern Italy from slipping into grinding poverty. Markets throughout the world were opened to exports of European goods and capital.