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Taking Back Immigration

LONDON – Within hours of US President Barack Obama’s re-election last month, a powerful belief took hold: overwhelming support from Latino voters had helped to secure his victory. Suddenly, the Republican Party, long identified with a hard line on immigration, started talking about the need for comprehensive reform. Pundits argued that if the Republicans resisted reform, they would lose the Latino vote for the next generation, relegating their party to near-permanent opposition status.

That might or might not be true. But the American election’s implications for immigration run deeper than electoral expediency – with lessons for governments around the world. The remarkable speed with which anti-immigration positions buckled indicates that what most Americans want, above all, is a rational approach; they want their political leaders to take responsibility for the issue, rather than running away from it.

When it comes to immigration, politicians usually are driven by fear – a tendency that has become even more acute since the onset of the global financial crisis. The rise of extreme nationalists in places like Greece and Finland has reinforced the belief that talking about immigration, except to argue against it, is politically fraught. So politicians either address immigration in the context of border security and cultural identity, or they ignore it.

But they might well be misreading their citizens’ concerns. Voter reaction is often less about disliking immigrants than it is about a profound sense of frustration that governments have failed to create an immigration system that works. They want a system that allows for the legal entry of needed workers, while preventing illegal entry; clamps down on exploitative employers; and provides resources to integrate immigrants into communities.