international analysis and commentary

Lessons for a migration crisis: an American perspective


Tens of thousands of people crossing over a porous border, triggering calls to harden the frontier, and mobilizing a militarized response to turn back the would-be migrants: What lessons might the experience of the United States offer Europe?

Not since the end of the Second World War have so many people – almost 60 million people, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees – been displaced as the result of war and unrest. Those displaced – from countries as far-flung as Syria, Eritrea, Libya and Afghanistan – have sought shelter from the storm, and the shelter that beckons is Europe.

Over the last year, 626,000 individuals requested asylum in Europe, with more than 170,000 refugees landing in Italy alone. This influx has threatened to overwhelm the resources and goodwill of the countries receiving them. The arrival of these unwished-for guests has spurred a political response reflected in rising xenophobia and calls to restrict new arrivals by interdicting their passage into Europe by whatever means necessary.

From the North American perspective this narrative sounds quite familiar: In response to millions of unauthorized arrivals, public opinion on immigration soured and border enforcement increased exponentially, with 651 miles of fencing built, hundreds of radar and camera surveillance towers installed, and the number of border patrol agents quintupling from fewer than 4,000 in 1994 to more than 21,000 today. The US now spends more on border enforcement – nearly $18 billion a year – than it does on all other federal law enforcement combined. Yet despite this extensive deployment of resources, the number of undocumented migrants has held steady over the last two decades, accounting for one in four of all immigrants living in the US. Many of these 11 million unauthorized immigrants are now long-term residents; the majority has resided in the United States for ten years or more. 

The American experience suggests some cautionary lessons for European policymakers confronting a similar migration crisis at their borders.

The first of these is whatever enforcement policies are put into place – from border fencing to naval blockades – a hard reality needs to be confronted: as long as the underlying conditions propelling migration remain, whether economic displacement or political distress, migration will continue. The resources spent in the United States to police the border have arguably addressed a primarily political purpose – assuaging native-born public opinion – rather than managing the crisis at hand. 

Addressing domestic concerns is not a trivial aspect of any migratory crisis. If immigration were purely an economic decision, nations might well adopt more open immigration regimes. However, immigration is a social process as well, one not captured solely by an economic framing of the issues. In any case, it has to be recognized that any response solely to the symptoms of migration – the numbers of people trying to gain entry by land, air or sea – will not curtail the migrant stream.

The second lesson the US might offer is that temporary migration streams, whatever their origin, are never truly temporary: some, perhaps most, of the migrants who arrive will stay. Their presence will inevitably create social stress among both the native and foreign born, with equally inevitable clashes around competing worldviews and the need for social resources. This means that public policy must be designed not only to manage the immediate crisis of controlling the border and respond to public concerns, but also include a significant component aimed at the longer-term integration of these new residents. 

It should be kept in mind that immigrant integration should not simply comprise policies targeted at the foreign born: integration policy has to have a dual focus on both the foreign born and the native born. This requires attention to fostering contact across groups and, among the native born, to encouraging shifts in national narratives. The US here provides a useful example of how a national narrative of the country as a “nation of immigrants” provides a basis for welcoming new arrivals. This narrative may seem far removed from the European experience but only because, as Ernest Renan points out in his famous essay “What is a Nation?”, countries in Europe have emphasized narratives of nationalism that deliberately obscure and erase both differences among the native born and their histories of migration – even quiet recent histories as sending and receiving nations of immigration. European policy makers may need to resurrect these buried histories, to remember past differences, in order to better welcome new differences, and new migrations, in a more democratic context. 

The third lesson suggested by the US experience is that shifts in national narratives – particularly those involving cultures in tension – do not happen overnight. A significant concern in Europe revolves around the cultural and religious values new migrants have brought with them, emblematized by Islam. These values are seen as irreconcilable with citizenship in modern, secular European democracies. A similar process played out in the US over the last two hundred years as American society grappled with another group seen as having a radically different set of religious and cultural values: Roman Catholics. When Catholics first arrived in the US many native-born Protestants believed that these new immigrants were fundamentally ill-suited for democracy, and Roman Catholics seemed to confirm many of their fears by building a parallel set of religious, educational and social institutions. It was a 150 years before the first (and so far, only) Catholic president was elected, and for Catholics to become, without a hint of protest, a majority on the nation’s Supreme Court. The Catholic experience in the United States indicates that immigrants’ formation of parallel institutions may not be a sign of an unwillingness to integrate, but rather a necessary step toward integration, and that it may be helpful to take the long view on immigrant integration.

There are certainly other outcomes European policy makers should want to avoid from the American experience. The United States, for instance, has enforced at various times a range of secondary memberships for its non-white residents – from denying them the full practice of citizenship to denying them citizenship at all. To its credit, Europe so far has successfully avoided the creation of permanent secondary statuses for its foreign born population: all residents have some pathway to full citizenship. Second, the United States has a similarly sordid history of encouraging and enforcing the residential segregation of these same individuals considered secondary citizens. Once these residential patterns are put in place they become exceptionally difficult to dislodge.  Again, Europe should avoid following this path if at all possible. And last, if immigrant integration in the United States has been successful it has not been the result of any deliberate national policy; integration has taken place despite, not because of, targeted integration policies. Europe has done better, and could do more still, to implement policies creating pathways for the educational and economic integration of immigrants.