BERLIN – Let’s step back from the abnormality of a national leader calling other countries “shitholes,” as U.S. President Donald Trump apparently did while complaining the United States got too many immigrants from Haiti and poor African nations and too few from countries “like Norway.” He probably spoke — as he often does, in his damn-the-consequences way — for many others, Americans as well as Europeans.
As one of some 257.7 million people not living in the countries of their birth today, I have something to tell these people: Your own countries could quickly lose their standing in the world if you try to limit immigration to people from the wealthier nations.
Trump has probably never traveled to the countries he’s insulted, but I suppose he means they’re poor and/or unhappy. Various rankings could sort out qualifying countries on those terms — by per capita economic output, freedom level or some composite indicator like quality of life or happiness. But since we’re discussing migration, none quite work. From a migration point of view, the worst countries are those where the greatest percentage of the population has the desire and ability to vote with its feet. For example, North Korea is, by most definitions, not a nice country, but its borders are sealed. And Norway — to use Trump’s example — is a wealthy, happy country, but a relatively large number of Norwegians — almost 200,000, according to the United Nations, or 3.7 percent of the country’s current population — live overseas.
This is not the most obvious list of “shitholes.” One can argue that people’s relative propensity to emigrate is not necessarily a matter of wealth or happiness. Palestine or Syria can’t even be compared with Portugal or Lithuania in terms of living standards; all these countries have in common is that people born there often choose to live somewhere else.
The U.S., for reasons of geographical proximity and immigration policy, doesn’t get a large influx of migrants from most of the top 20 countries that people like to leave behind. The top 20 diasporas in the U.S., according to U.N. data, include Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans and Salvadorans — but also large numbers of Canadians, Brits, Germans and Poles, as well as South Koreans, Indians and Chinese.
Most immigrants to the U.S. are from countries with a relatively small percentage of the population that doesn’t want to live in the country of birth. Some — not many — are from places that many residents would like to leave behind. Balancing both groups is key to supporting America’s reputation as a nice country to live in. Without locals who make it in America, the U.S. claim to global leadership would be far less convincing to most foreigners.
The U.S. could redesign its immigration policy to welcome only people from countries that sit relatively close to the U.S. on the happiness, livability and per capita economic output scale. Judging by the list of countries from which people like to emigrate, it could get a more significant influx of Europeans (except of course they’re likely to be Latvians, Lithuanians and Romanians rather than Danes and Norwegians). But those prone to anti-immigrant sentiment will still resent the influx, as they did in the United Kingdom: The European freedom of movement was probably the biggest single cause of the Brexit vote. At the same time, the word-of-mouth reach of the U.S. as the shining city on the hill will shrink to a small group of countries that are already U.S. allies.
My country of birth, Russia, is the fourth biggest country of immigration in the world in absolute terms. Mostly, they hail from former Soviet nations. The resulting outpouring of migrants’ remittances and their stories of life in wealthy Russian cities is a great way to bolster Russia’s soft power. At the same time, Russians — mostly living in Western nations — make up the world’s third biggest diaspora. Their stories of life in Europe, the U.S. and Australia maintain the country’s link to the Western world despite recent political hostilities.
The geography of immigration is an important tool of international influence for a country. By taking in large numbers of Turkish immigrants, Germany became one of Turkey’s key international partners and, essentially, its anchor to the Western world. Similarly, Germany’s large Russian diaspora is part of what makes the country Russia’s most important negotiating partner in Europe. Now that more Middle Eastern immigrants have arrived, Germany has, perhaps unwittingly, set itself up for an important role in that region’s affairs, which will become increasingly obvious once peace is reestablished in Syria.
For an isolationist U.S., it’s natural to turn away from some countries and whole regions. Trump’s immigration ban helps erode its relevance in the Middle East. Keeping away immigrants from Central America and the Caribbean will have the same effect. Does the U.S. really need more people from Europe? It may, given how Trump’s actions are eroding trust in the U.S. this side of the Atlantic. But it should be a conscious decision.
Based in Berlin, Russian writer Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist.