When illegal immigration to Europe first burst on to the American news scene, after the 2013 Lampedusa migrant boat sinking, it seemed to be primarily a humanitarian problem. Both in Europe and abroad, pundits focused on how to prevent tragedies like that one while at best secondarily making nods to integration and border security.
But today, while humanitarian horrors persist (over 70 immigrants were found dead in a truck in Austria yesterday, for instance), it has become clear that Europe is facing a policy crisis of Continental proportions. Writing in USA Today, Glenn Reynolds (a.k.a. Instapundit) captures the scene:
From following the news, you’d think that immigration was strictly a U.S. problem, one brought to the fore by Donald Trump. But although Trump has certainly moved the debate to a new level here at home, other parts of the world are facing an immigration crisis that is, if anything, worse. And there are lessons in that.
The European Union, for example, is now beset with a flood of “migrants,” mostly from Africa and the Middle East. Some of them are fleeing war and civil strife; others are heading for a place with more economic opportunity — or, at least, with welfare benefits that dwarf what they could earn at home through hard work.[..]
[A]s Americans talk of a border fence, Bulgaria is building one, with razor wire and steel 12 feet high. And Slovakia is flat-out refusing to accept Muslim migrants, viewing them as dangerous and destabilizing. Migrants have massed at the Macedonian border and are creating tensions between Serbia and Hungary. Hungary is building a fence too. Norwegian politicians are suggesting that Norway should do something similar to Australia, which is sending unwelcome refugees to New Guinea or to prison.
The numbers back up the sense of crisis: Europe is facing levels of migration unprecedented since the Second World War. Germany now believes that 800,0000 migrants will come to the country by the end of the year, a fourfold increase over previous years. 107,500 migrants are reported to have come to Europe in July alone, the first time that over 100,000 have landed in one month. And in Britain, net migration has hit 330,000—another record.
Statistically, migration to Europe has now by many measures reached the level seen in America during our highest historical period of immigration, the so-called “Great Wave”, which lasted from 1880-1924. In 1903, for instance, in the middle of the Wave, approximately 800,000 immigrants entered an America that had a population of about 80 million residents—the same figures in both cases as for Germany this year. This year, the UK’s foreign-born population is expected to hit 8 million; out of a population of 64 million, that means that 12.5% of the country will be foreign-born—about where it hovered in the U.S. during the Great Wave.
The Great Wave in the U.S. continued for over forty years; it probably won’t be allowed to in Europe (though as Ross Douthat points out, the demographic pressure from Africa will likely persist), so the analogy is by no means perfect. But it does illustrate the scale of the influx—and it also tells us something about the likely reaction.
As I wrote last week, the Wave completely transformed America. New York is unimaginable without the Jewish and Italian influences it carried with it; ditto Chicago without the Polish and Eastern European immigrants. Demographically and culturally, the country shifted significantly.
But as I also noted, this long period of essentially unrestrained immigration engendered a backlash so significant that, from 1924 onward, the U.S. completely shut down immigration for two generations—the influx slowed to a trickle, and not even the looming of the Holocaust, or the refugee crises that followed World War II, could persuade the public, whose opinion had hardened against immigration, to admit more than a token number of newcomers.
At the start of the Wave, when the scale of the new immigration became clear to the American public—much as it is to Europeans now—the U.S. had several things going for it that present-day Europe does not. The country was underpopulated (the frontier would not officially be declared closed until the 1890 census) and the economy was booming and dynamic as the Industrial Revolution hit full stride in this country. The economy proved more than capable of absorbing the new immigrants and providing them with jobs. Perhaps most importantly, America had a history of large-scale immigration (think the Irish in the 1840s), and a legal structure and culture that favored the acceptance and assimilation of the newcomers.
In the absence of these conditions, European popular patience is likely to be much shorter, and the reception for the refugees and migrants already there much less warm. In the U.S., there was at the beginning a sense of democratic acceptance of the scale of immigration; only when the public’s opinion shifted did we see increased radicalism (e.g. the rebirth of the Klan as an anti-immigrant phenomenon in the early 1900s) and then a broad-based, popular movement to shut the doors. In present-day Europe, immigrants are already arriving without legal sanction or democratic approval, and the backlash has already begun brewing in the form of the increased popularity of fringe parties. European leaders, if they want to avert a worse crisis, need to start taking some hard steps. First, they must get control of their borders.
The Great Wave was both legal and popular; right now Europe’s is neither, and it shows.