Headlines about migration can seem unbearably stark: attacks on foreigners by neo-fascists in Greece, dozens of domestic workers on death row in the gulf, a crass and callous campaign by the British government to drive out migrants. Yet, despite persistent and even rising anti-immigrant sentiment in much of the world, promising signs of a more enlightened approach to migration are emerging.

The United States is in the midst of an intense debate on a sweeping immigration overhaul. After a quarter-century of near-paralysis, American legislators are close to agreeing on reforms that would allow 11 million undocumented migrants to earn citizenship. The proposed changes also would make the U.S. a magnet for talent and creativity from around the world.

The fiscal and economic arguments for a more liberal approach to migration have shaped the American debate. According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, the U.S. Senate’s reform legislation, passed in June, would result in fiscal benefits worth almost $1 trillion over the next two decades. Supporters also point out that immigrants launched 28 percent of all new American businesses in 2011, even though they accounted for just 13 percent of the population.

The voices of both grassroots and establishment advocates have been equally decisive. “Dreamers” — children raised in the U.S. but without legal status — have become the human face of reform. Business leaders, long afraid to participate in such a polarized debate, have finally entered the fray, arguing forcefully that immigration is critical to American competitiveness. Thanks in part to all this spirited work, 72 percent of Americans, according to a recent Gallup poll, now consider immigration a net benefit for the country.

Given its history, America’s leadership on immigration is natural. Germany, on the other hand, is not widely considered progressive in this realm. Yet, fairly quietly, Germany has done as much as any other country in recent years to court foreigners and refashion itself as a country of immigration. One million people relocated to Germany in 2012 alone. Today, one-fifth of Germany’s residents — and one-third of its schoolchildren — have a migrant background.

In July, Germany jettisoned 40 percent of its immigration rules, lowering barriers for mid-skilled workers like train drivers and machinists. For the highly skilled, its immigration laws are among the OECD’s most liberal. And yet the German government estimates that the country will face a shortfall of two million skilled workers by 2020.

Recent reforms not only seek to attract immigrants, but also to help them fulfill their potential. Germany, for instance, is focused on helping foreigners get their qualifications recognized — so that, for example, doctors do not have to drive taxis. Public institutions like the police are hiring more immigrants. A “Diversity Charter,” launched in 2006 and originally endorsed by a mere four companies, now has more than 1,500 corporate signatories. And 4 percent of candidates in September’s parliamentary election have a migrant background, the highest ratio ever.

Other countries have also gotten on the reform bandwagon. The United Arab Emirates has been revamping its laws to improve migrants’ living conditions and strengthen protection of their rights. Its activism is noteworthy, given the benighted approach to migrants typical in other gulf countries, such as Saudi Arabia. Brazil, meanwhile, aims to gain a competitive edge by making it easier for foreigners to immigrate with their families. The list of reformers is growing.

Even more surprising, new international norms are being advanced. The Domestic Workers Convention, adopted in 2011, enters into force on Sept. 5, promising to extend labor protections to tens of millions of the most vulnerable migrant workers. The treaty is quickly gaining momentum, having been ratified in recent months by Germany, Italy, Argentina, and South Africa, among others.

All this progress is coming at an opportune moment. In October, for only the second time in its history, the United Nations General Assembly will address international migration. The first such summit, in 2006, gave birth to an important new institution, the Global Forum on Migration and Development. In the seven years since, the forum has helped to foster trust, knowledge, and cooperation among states and other stakeholders.

Collaboration has led to some stunning gains. Migrants used to pay a fee of almost 15 percent on average to send money back home; this has fallen to less than 9 percent, and in some cases nearly to zero, which should be the universal goal. Given that migrants remitted $401 billion last year to developing countries alone, such progress is freeing up tens of billions of dollars for some of the world’s poorest households.

But even more ambitious action is needed. When they gather at the U.N. in October, policymakers should take courage from the reform trailblazers in the U.S., Germany, the UAE, and elsewhere. If profound change is possible at the national level in the face of toxic populism, it should come more easily at the international level, where cooperation produces mostly winners. (The losers generally are bad actors: smugglers, traffickers, abusive recruiters, and exploitative employers.)

States need not agree on all aspects of migration in order to settle on an agenda for common action. There is no shortage of problems to confront and opportunities to seize. We need to rein in the bad actors; eliminate discrimination against migrants; sharply reduce human trafficking; increase the share of migrants working at their highest skill level; decriminalize migration violations; end the detention of migrant children; recast refugees as productive members of our communities; and lower the proportion of migrants lacking residency rights.

Some advocates of open borders estimate that unrestricted movement across borders could double global GDP. While a borderless world is a political non-starter, that figure does point to the scale of the development gains that a truly well-managed system of global mobility might produce. Migration reform is not for the faint-hearted. But those who want to leave their mark on one of the 21st century’s most vital issues — and to create a world in which international migrants are treated equitably and with dignity — will embrace it.

Peter Sutherland is chairman of the London School of Economics and special representative of the U.N. secretary general for International Migration and Development. © Project Syndicate, 2013.

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