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The Immigration Tinderbox

In a highly polarizing US election campaign, few issues are as divisive – or important to voters – as immigration. And the United States is not alone: across Europe, politicians have often attempted to stoke – and capitalize on – anxiety about immigration.

Perhaps the most extreme expression of the immigration divide in the US today, as the University of Chicago’s Alison L. LaCroix explains, is the effort by the state of Texas to assert “its right to pursue an immigration policy at odds with that of the US federal government.” But the implications extend well beyond immigration policy: in today’s partisanship-driven “battles over the hierarchy of federal and state power,” commentators are “reviving arguments that almost unraveled the Union” in the the early nineteenth century.

According to Northwestern University’s Nancy Qian, immigration “need not be a partisan issue” at all. Both sides have a point: “The truth about immigration is far less frightening than what some politicians and media figures want you to believe,” and “there is nothing necessarily xenophobic or bigoted about wanting to strengthen border security.” What is needed now is “a thoughtful, evidence-based discussion, not hysterics.”

Former World Bank chief economist Anne O. Krueger agrees. “Instead of getting caught up in unproductive debates about immigration’s adverse effects,” she argues, public policy should focus on “determining its optimal rate, ensuring legality, fostering seamless integration, and boosting productivity.” Otherwise, the US will find itself without enough workers, owing to falling fertility, and it might even face a “Japan-style period of economic stagnation.”

Europe, too, needs more foreign workers. Yet, as the European University Institute’s Soňa Muzikárová explains, Central and East European countries, in particular, have long sought to curb the flow of migrants and asylum seekers, “contending that an influx of third-country nationals would undermine social stability, threaten cultural cohesion, and even pose a security risk.” But all this “performative hostility toward migrants” cannot obscure these countries’ “desperate need for foreign workers” at a time when “demand for skills in the industries of the future” is increasing, “fertility rates are declining, and young people are leaving the region to pursue better opportunities elsewhere.”

While a well-designed immigration policy would bring immense benefits, it would not do as much to reduce support for right-wing parties across Europe as some might assume. As Federico Fubini of Corriere della Sera points out, asylum seekers’ arrivals are “currently well below the last decade’s average, and European societies welcomed millions of Ukrainian refugees without much controversy.” In fact, the evidence suggests that it is geopolitical insecurity, not immigration, that is “at the heart of Europe’s right-wing turn.”

Featured in this Big Picture

  1. Alison L. LaCroixAlison L. LaCroix
  2. Nancy QianNancy Qian
  3. Anne O. KruegerAnne O. Krueger
  4. Soňa MuzikárováSoňa Muzikárová
  5. Federico FubiniFederico Fubini

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