Within hours of US President Barack Obama’s re-election last month, a powerful belief took hold: overwhelming support from Latino voters had helped to secure his victory. Suddenly, the Republican Party, long identified with a hard line on immigration, started talking about the need for comprehensive reform. Pundits argued that if the Republicans resisted reform, they would lose the Latino vote for the next generation, relegating their party to near-permanent opposition status.
That might or might not be true. But the American election’s implications for immigration run deeper than electoral expediency – with lessons for governments around the world. The remarkable speed with which anti-immigration positions buckled indicates that what most Americans want, above all, is a rational approach; they want their political leaders to take responsibility for the issue, rather than running away from it.
When it comes to immigration, politicians usually are driven by fear – a tendency that has become even more acute since the onset of the global financial crisis. The rise of extreme nationalists in places like Greece and Finland has reinforced the belief that talking about immigration, except to argue against it, is politically fraught. So politicians either address immigration in the context of border security and cultural identity, or they ignore it.
But they might well be misreading their citizens’ concerns. Voter reaction is often less about disliking immigrants than it is about a profound sense of frustration that governments have failed to create an immigration system that works. They want a system that allows for the legal entry of needed workers, while preventing illegal entry; clamps down on exploitative employers; and provides resources to integrate immigrants into communities.
Voters might not like that some migrants enter their country illegally. But many find it equally or even more unconscionable that migrants are forced to live for decades in the shadows – or that children raised by immigrant parents could be deported to countries that they have never seen.
When migration is undertaken in a legal, orderly way, the public supports it. A recent transatlantic survey by the German Marshall Fund found that, while majorities in all countries were worried about illegal immigration, anxiety about legal immigration was low – with only 26% of European respondents expressing concern, and just 18% doing so in the United States.
Ceding the immigration debate to extremists has abetted another extraordinary distortion: people generally believe that the number of immigrants in their countries is far higher than it actually is. In the same German Marshall Fund survey, British respondents estimated that 31.8% of the United Kingdom’s population was foreign born; the true figure is 11.3%. Americans estimated that the US foreign-born population stood at 37.8% – triple the actual proportion, 12.5%. Such false perceptions make it even more difficult to have a reasonable debate about the issues.
Tackling migration-related challenges is necessary regardless of whether one favors more or less immigration. Today, according to the United Nations, there are 214 million people living outside their country of birth, up from approximately 82 million in 1970. So, even if not a single new person were to cross a border, the challenges would still be with us.
The reality, of course, is that many countries, especially OECD members, will decide that they need more immigrants as their own populations age and shrink. This implies that they should figure out how to manage immigration well, rather than outsourcing much of the process to smugglers and extremists. And, in a world in which nearly half of migrants are now moving from one developing country to another, the problems are no longer confined to the West.
The good news is that there have been important advances during the last decade in managing migration. For example, policymakers can draw on successful programs to integrate migrant children into educational systems. They can learn how some countries are successfully matching their businesses’ labor needs with immigrants’ skills. Developing countries, meanwhile, are getting smarter about how to leverage the $406 billion in remittances that their expatriate citizens will send home this year – by issuing diaspora bonds, for example, or by creating targeted investment opportunities for them.
Many pivotal stakeholders also are advocating for a more rational immigration system. Labor unions, once known for their skepticism toward immigration, are increasingly in favor of pro-immigration reforms. In fact, unions were a driving force behind last year’s Domestic Workers Convention, which seeks to protect the rights of the world’s estimated 50-100 million domestic workers.
By supporting smart, progressive reforms, politicians should at least be able to neutralize the issue of immigration on Election Day, if not turn it to their advantage. More important, electoral politics aside, they would be helping to craft better societies whose politics are shaped by reasonable debate among citizens, not distorted by the community-destroying behavior of smugglers and extremists. This, after all, is what democratic politics is all about.
Peter Sutherland is the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on International Migration and Development.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2012.