European Affairs

Transatlantic Contradictions on Immigration     Print Email


Kathleen NewlandThe countries of Western Europe are countries of immigration to very nearly the same extent as the United States, judged by the proportion of the population made up of immigrants and their descendants. Yet the contrasts could hardly be more stark in the way people and policy-makers on opposite sides of the Atlantic look at the issue.

While many in the U.S. are agitated about the prevalence of unauthorized immigration, lately focused on Hispanics, most acknowledge the benefits of legal immigration. In Western Europe, immigration is almost universally regarded as a problem, though some – like the Blair government in Britain – see it as a challenge that can be solved while others – on the political right, such as the Danish People's Party and Jean- Marie Le Pen's National Front in France – think the only answer is to bring it, as much as possible, to an end.

The contrasting attitudes toward immigration can be traced back to mega trends in history, culture, and philosophies of governance. But current public policy also plays its part.

At the risk of over-generalizing, U.S. policy for at least the last ten years has been to bar immigrants from the public welfare system and open the labor market wide. European governments, especially for asylum-seekers, have largely done the opposite, providing at least limited public assistance but restricting their access to the formal work force.

By choosing to protect the labor market and share some of the benefits of the welfare state, European governments have reinforced – and in some cases created – public prejudice toward immigrants as irretrievably incompatible, unmotivated scroungers with little to contribute to their host societies. Of course, this perception falls most heavily on the most visibly different, by virtue of skin color, dress, or habits.

As a result, European governments in practice are preoccupied with immigrant integration – or rather with its failure. This anxiety is fed by the increasingly vocal and occasionally violent reactions of frustration among immigrant communities – a trend matched by the rise of right-wing anti-immigrant political parties and a broad unease about the future of the European economic model. Fears of visible – especially Muslim – minorities have been fanned by a number of flamboyant acts of terrorism perpetrated by Islamist radicals.

In the United States, on the other hand, immigrant integration is a policy afterthought, as Michael Fix and Margie McHugh of the Migration Policy Institute have put it: "Few resources have been dedicated to the issue, the institutional infrastructure is skeletal, and there are few strong advocates who are steeped in the issue. Policy-makers at all levels of government have little sense of what state or local policies have been adopted, how much they cost, how well they work, and what makes them successful." Remarkably, under those circumstances, immigrant integration in the United States has been, relatively, quite successful. Despite unprecedented levels of immigration throughout the 1990s and continuing into the new century, immigrants and their children continue to learn English: by the third generation, most no longer speak their ancestral tongue. In general, they climb the economic ladder, participate in civic life and, quite commonly, marry outside their ethnic community. This pattern seems likely to prevail with the current wave of immigrants of Hispanic origin.

That is not to say that immigrants to the United States have no problems of integration. The poverty rate is high among immigrant families with full-time workers, exclusion from the social safety net increases their vulnerability and many immigrant students have trouble learning limited proficiency in English. Crucially however, the sense of opportunity remains strong.

Trying to explain the success of immigrants in the United States is a source of debate. Some analysts attribute it to the government's laissez faire approach to integration while others insist that immigrants succeed despite the lack of pro-active measures to help them integrate. Undoubtedly immigrant integration could work more smoothly if governments at all levels from the federal to the municipal were more engaged with the issue on the ground.

What seems beyond dispute is that structural factors in the economy and society support integration in ways that contrast sharply with those of western Europe.

The flexibility and strength of the labor market must come at the top of the list. Although two-thirds of legal immigration in the United States is made up of people joining relatives already in residence – about the same proportion as in France – a very high proportion of them can and do enter the labor force. A long running economic boom and low entry barriers to the labor market have produced historically low unemployment rates (overall less than five at 8.9 percent) among natives and immigrants alike. In 2005 France, national unemployment hovered stubbornly at percent in but was twice that among immigrants and nearly 40 percent for immigrant youth.

The United Kingdom, U.S.-level, with its less heavily regulated economy and level unemployment rate, has seen some second generation immigrant groups, particularly Indians and Chinese, outperform the native-born in the labor market. But others such as children of Afro-Caribbean and Pakistani immigrants, have higher unemployment and lower earnings than native born white Britons.

In the United States, immigrants who are members of racial minorities may take advantage of affirmative action programs intended to overcome the effects of past discrimination toward native-born minorities. Institutions of the federal government, such as the armed forces and the civil service, have acted as escalators for successive immigrant groups, creating opportunities for higher education and professional employment. Discrimination has by no means been eliminated, but immigrants and the children of immigrants are more fully represented in public office the media, the top ranks of business, the universities, and other leading sectors than they are in Western Europe.

Another institution of American life that works to promote immigrant integration is organized religion. The United States remains the most religious of Western industrialized countries, and has avoided the bitter debates about secularism that have damaged relations between European states and Muslim immigrant communities. Overt religious behavior is foreign to most modern Europeans – and abhorrent to some – whereas it is looked upon with favor in the contemporary United States. Muslims may be regarded with suspicion by some Americans, but it is for imputed political beliefs rather than because they are religious. It is almost inconceivable that the headscarf debates that have raged in France and Germany would be taken up as a matter of federal policy in the United States, where libertarian instincts about personal behavior are more entrenched than in more collectivist societies.

That laissez faire attitude toward individual behavior spills over into contrasting American and European notions of integration. The American tradition of pluralism that tolerates interest groups encourages minority factions to consolidate and thus reinforce their group identity in order to participate in civic life. The influence of political interest groups of immigrant origin in U.S. politics is legendary: the Greek lobby, the Armenian lobby, and the Jewish lobby are the role models for newer immigrant arrivals seeking to articulate their concerns and interests through U.S. political parties, electoral politics, and public institutions. Europe's mainstream political institutions give little encouragement to the organized expression of migrant interests. Integration is much more demanding of the immigrant, and less so of mainstream institutions. As Ulf Hedetof of Aalborg University said about Denmark, "The ground rule is that minorities must learn how to come to terms with Denmark – not vice versa." 1

The assimilationist tendency was made explicit in the new French Immigration Law of July 24, 2006. "For the First time in French history", writes Kara Murphy, "a law explicitly states the integration responsibilities of immigrants.... Immigrants must sign a 'welcome and integration' contract and take French language and civics courses. Before being permitted to apply for permanent residence, immigrants must accordingly prove that they are 'well-integrated' into French society. The government understands integration in this regard to mean that the immigrant respects and complies with the principles of the French Republic and has a sufficient knowledge of the French language." 2

Every state has the sovereign right to determine who shall enter its territory, for how long and under what conditions. Europe and the United States, and all other industrialized or industrializing countries, must now compete for access to the world's human capital. The European countries, with low and declining birth rates, will need immigrants to fill both highly skilled jobs and less skilled ones, to support their public institutions and renew their cultures. Those that are overly defensive may raise the hurdles to integration to such daunting heights that many immigrants, including those with the highest potential, decide not to make the effort. Societies that cannot find ways to welcome immigrants will place themselves, in the not-too-distant future, at a disadvantage that is more threatening than the changes required to adapt to newcomers.

1 Migration Information Source, November 1, 2006
2 Ibid.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 7, Issue number 3-4 in the Fall/Winter of 2006.

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