Europe’s immigration crisis is reaching historical proportions, with the number of incoming migrants equalling the rate of immigration to America during the historical peak in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. So why not try now in Europe what worked then in America? Sohrab Ahmari, writing in the Wall Street Journal, points out some reasons why Europe might want to echo a “best practice” from history:
The U.S. experience on Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century is instructive. The island processed an astonishing 1.25 million immigrants in 1907, a banner year for U.S. immigration. In the next decade U.S. immigration authorities also mastered immigrant processing—including ultra-efficient medical checks and questioning—aboard ships.
The situations aren’t precisely analogous. At Ellis Island’s height as a processing center, America maintained a more or less open-door policy. But the main lesson for Europe today lies in the American government’s ability at that time to impose order on human chaos on a scale similar to the current refugee crisis. Central to that success was the existence of a singular executive with broad discretion to examine, process, accept and in some cases reject migrants.[..]
With a comprehensive frontline model, the first benefit is that it imposes order on a rapidly deteriorating situation. The Balkan region is made up of small, fragile states. If they’re expected to shoulder more responsibility, then they need greater assistance from the north in counterterror screening, asylum processing, temporary housing and so on. Better, then, to have recipient states act in a coordinated, proactive fashion at the refugee wellspring rather than applying ad hoc policy handed down from Berlin and Brussels.
Ellis in many ways is the most successful example in history of how a democratic nation can process and welcome large numbers of immigrants. During its peak years (1890-1924), Ellis handled almost a million newcomers every year. As an immigration station, it was incredibly efficient: It screened, legalized, and released into the U.S. 90 percent of each new boatload within a day, and 99 percent (usually after medical treatment) overall. While inspections at Ellis could be a little rough around the edges, there are few would-be immigrants today, whether they were trying to get into Europe or the U.S, who would not long for such a system.
But Ellis as a technical phenomenon was downstream of a major policy consensus that had formed in the United States. Americans had spent much of the 1870s and 1880s debating immigration in many forums: Congress, state legislatures, Supreme Court cases, and even through treaties and presidential vetoes. Over that time, a durable pro-immigrant coalition had assembled that would uphold large-scale legal immigration for four and a half decades. (This is what happened when that coalition fell apart.) Beneath Ellis’ success lay the American tradition of welcoming new immigrants as well as an economic demand for them and a political consensus that reflected those popular sentiments.
Europe’s problem is that none of these are in place there right now. Nobody has forged a pro-immigration consensus that extends beyond the elite. While Europeans expressed great humanitarian sympathy after the drowning of Aylan Kurdi, nevertheless, when the scale of the influx became clear, a popular revolt (actively abetted by, but by no means limited to, the far right) began. Today, European ministers had to force through a mandatory refugee sharing plan with majority, not consensus, voting; the governments of the Eastern European “Visegrad” countries, and sizable proportions of many other states, are furious. The Ellis coalition lasted 44 years before a populist revolt slammed the doors shut; the EU’s immigration consensus may not last 44 days.
There are still lessons Europe could draw from America’s turn-of-the-20th-century success. Ellis worked in part because the Atlantic Ocean, unlike the Mediterranean, proved a unsurmountable barrier to significant illegal immigration. For that reason, many soft restrictionists in America felt comfortable allowing large-scale, but regulated, immigration. And because they had legal status, the immigrants could come to the U.S. in the newly-invented, steel-hulled steamships that offered humane, if not luxurious, transportation to the peasants of Europe traveling in steerage. If the EU would enforce its border properly, its peoples might be open to a significant, though likely reduced, measure of humanitarian immigration, undertaken through safe and regulated means—without thousands of drownings.
None of these are easy lifts. And to make matters worse, the peoples of Europe can sense, as Ahmari writes, that their leaders are trying to force something down their throats. But trying to solve technical problems before forging political consensus has been the hallmark of almost every EU crisis in the last two decades. This went badly enough when Brussels decided to start mixing currencies; it could be far worse when it mixes peoples. It’s time to try something new—or 125 years old.