PRAGUE — It is time for Europe’s politicians to admit to voters that governments cannot stop people moving across borders. Despite efforts to build a Fortress Europe, over a million foreigners bypass its defenses every year; some enter covertly, but most just overstay their visas and work illicitly. Even if Europe became a police state, migrants could get through: documents can be forged or stolen, visas overstayed, people smuggled, officials bribed. While Draconian policies can curb migration somewhat, they mostly drive it underground.
That creates huge costs. Aside from a humanitarian crisis, with thousands drowning each year trying to reach Europe and thousands more detained, there is the soaring expense of border controls and bureaucracy, a criminalized people-smuggling industry, and an expanding shadow economy, where illegal migrants are vulnerable to exploitation, labor laws are broken and taxes go unpaid. In addition, there is rising mistrust of politicians who cannot fulfill promises to halt immigration, accompanied by perceptions of immigrants as lawbreakers rather than enterprising people, and mistreatment of refugees aimed at deterring people who want to work from applying for asylum.
These problems are due not to immigrants, but to our immigration controls, which are not only costly and cruel, but also ineffective and counterproductive. Far from protecting us, they undermine law and order, just as Prohibition did more damage to America than drinking ever has. Pragmatic governments surely ought to legalize and regulate migration instead.
Immigrants are not an invading army; they are mostly people seeking a better life who are drawn to Europe by the huge demand for workers to fill the low-end jobs that our aging and increasingly wealthy societies rely on, but which our increasingly well-educated and comfortable citizens are unwilling to take.
Many services cannot readily be mechanized or imported — old people cannot be cared for by a robot or from abroad — while people increasingly pay others to perform tasks that they once did themselves, freeing up their own time for more productive work or leisure. Thus, as advanced economies create high-skilled jobs, they inevitably create low-skilled ones, too.
In fact, low-skilled jobs still account for more than a quarter of Western Europe’s workforce. But, whereas only half of Europeans now aged 55-64 finished secondary education, four in five 25-34-year-olds have done so, and they naturally aspire to better things. Even Europeans with few or no qualifications increasingly shun dirty, difficult and dangerous jobs. The only way to reconcile our aspirations to opportunity for all with the reality of drudgery for some is through immigration.
Consider old-age care, the fastest-growing employment sector in Europe. Since young Europeans would rather work in a shop than a retirement home, persuading them otherwise would require a huge wage hike. Given fiscal constraints, that implies either less care for pensioners, budget cuts elsewhere, or tax hikes.
Immigrants, however, face a different set of alternatives; with wages in Brussels far higher than in Manila, for example, Filipino immigrants are generally happy to do such work. This is not exploitation; everyone — migrants, taxpayers and Europeans young and old — is better off. Nor does it undercut wages, since most Europeans do not want these jobs. And it does not undermine social standards, because legal migrants have recourse to trade unions and the law.
Indeed, just as it is often mutually beneficial to import computers from China, IT services from India, and investment-banking services from Americans, it can also make sense to import Filipino care workers, Congolese cleaners and Brazilian bar staff. Policymakers who want products and providers of high-skilled services to move freely but people who provide less-skilled services to stay put are not just hypocrites; they are also economically illiterate.
Nor do immigrants merely take jobs; they also create them. As they spend their wages, they increase demand for people to produce the goods and services that they consume. Spain has admitted more immigrants in recent years than any other European country, yet its unemployment rate continues to fall; Britain, Ireland, and Sweden still have low unemployment after opening their labor markets to the Poles and other new EU members in 2004.
This is also because immigrants often complement native workers’ efforts. A foreign nanny may allow a British doctor to return to work, where hardworking foreign nurses and cleaners enhance her productivity. While innovation sometimes comes from brilliant individuals — 21 of Britain’s Nobel prizewinners were refugees — it generally comes from the synergy of talented people in close proximity. Likewise, consider Silicon Valley: Intel, Yahoo!, Google and eBay were all cofounded by immigrants.
Millions of Europeans want EU governments to lower their barriers to developing countries’ exports, cancel Third World debt and increase foreign aid. Yet increased migration would help the poor far more. Migrants from poor countries already send home $200 billion a year — perhaps another $400 billion informally — compared to the $80 billion in aid given by Western governments.
These remittances are not wasted on weapons or siphoned off into Swiss bank accounts; they go straight into local people’s pockets. They pay for food, clean water, medicines and to keep kids in school. And returning migrants bring back new skills, new ideas, and the money to start new businesses. Africa’s first Internet cafes were started by migrants returning from Europe.
Politicians should have the courage to stop fighting an unwinnable war. If open borders are not politically feasible for now, our leaders should at least create a legal route for people from developing countries to enter and work. Of course, problems may arise; learning to live together can be tough. But Europe would thrive on the cosmopolitan dynamism that results from treating immigration as an opportunity rather than as a threat.
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