Immigration, and the intense opposition to it, are roiling the political agendas of democracies on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. New technologies of transportation and communication, combined with the age-old plagues of war and poverty, have turned what was for most of the 20th century a relative trickle of people leaving their home countries into massive migrations. This has triggered political backlashes in both Europe and the United States, with populist anti-immigrant movements and political parties gaining strength from Great Britain to Hungary and Donald Trump becoming the 45th American President.
Beyond the similarities in the causes and effects of mass migration in America and Europe, however, its political, economic and social consequences in the Old and New Worlds differ in important ways. After Europe by Ivan Krastev, a Bulgarian who is a fellow at think tanks in Vienna and Berlin and has written widely on European affairs, is a brief, provocative, and generally pessimistic meditation on the continent’s future that offers a useful primer on immigration in Europe. The book thus provides the basis for comparing immigration’s impact and likely future there with its consequences on the other side of the Atlantic. The comparison suggests that those consequences will be harsher, and the problems to which immigration gives rise will become less manageable, in the 28 countries of the European Union than in the 50 states of the United States.
Some of the Transatlantic differences have to do with history. Beginning with the religious refugees from England who traveled to North America in the seventeenth century, immigrants have populated the United States for more than four hundred years. For Americans, the inflow of people from abroad, while often the cause of social tensions, is normal. While some European countries have occasionally accepted immigrants on an appreciable scale—in the 20th century France absorbed newcomers from Eastern Europe as well as from its former colonies, and Krastev notes that after World War I his native Bulgaria took in refugees amounting to fully one-fourth of its population—the members of the European Union have had far less experience with receiving and assimilating large numbers of foreigners than has the United States.
Geography also makes a difference. As a continent-sized country, the United States has plenty of room for newcomers. Of course, many settle in relatively crowded cities; but America has more of these than any single European state. “It may surprise the Bangladeshis and Pakistanis who come to live in South East England,” George Walden writes in his powerful 2006 book Time to Emigrate?, “that they’re emigrating to a place more densely settled than India.”
Demography counts as well. With its population of 325 million, the United States can experience even large numbers of immigrants as the proverbial drop in the bucket. For the far smaller European countries, some of them tiny by comparison with the colossus of North America, even lesser numbers can feel like a tidal wave.
Furthermore, the American economy has historically done better than those in Europe at generating the kinds of jobs that low-skilled immigrants can do, which makes it easier to absorb them. In fact, because welfare benefits tend to be more modest in the United States than in Europe, immigrants come to America to work. During economic downturns, when jobs are scarce, some return home and others who in booming times would have immigrated remain in their home countries instead. By contrast, a considerable number of immigrants in Europe do not work and draw social benefits of various kinds for which others have to pay, creating a potent source of resentment that is less intensely felt in the United States.
If Europe and America differ in their capacities to receive and absorb immigrants, their respective immigrant populations differ as well, and in ways that make them more disruptive in Europe than in North America. The largest cohort of migrants to the United States comes from Mexico and the smaller countries of Central America. Hispanics have lived in what is now the United States since the establishment of the city of Santa Fe, in modern New Mexico, in 1610. Relations between the United States and its neighbors to the south, and between the Hispanic and non-Hispanic populations north of the Rio Grande River, have not always been smooth; but the relationship is at least a familiar one. Moreover, the two groups and the countries involved largely share a common faith: Christianity.
A considerably greater social and cultural gap separates the indigenous population of Europe from many of the newcomers there, which aggravates—indeed stands at the heart of—the continent’s immigration problem. The bulk of the new arrivals come originally from North and sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and South and southwest Asia, where the predominant customs, values, and beliefs differ more sharply from those of the countries of the European Union than the Central Americans’ do from the norms of the United States. In a largely Christian (or at least post-Christian) Europe many of the immigrants are Muslim, and lack the education and background that would ease their assimilation into the societies to which they have come.
Furthermore, a number of the countries sending people to Europe suffer from civil war and social and economic collapse. These conditions make the migrants from such places desperate to leave, regardless of whether jobs are available in the countries they seek to enter and of whether their customs and values align with those of the people among whom they aspire to live. Those desperation-inducing conditions also mean that migrants from such places are likely to descend on Europe in ever-greater numbers, even when they are not welcome. By contrast, Mexico and the countries of Central America, while hardly without problems, enjoy relatively greater stability, have better economic prospects, and are less likely to send huge flows of distressed people to the United States in the years ahead.
Moreover, immigrants to Europe have become associated with violence, especially terrorist violence, in a way that immigrants to the United States have not. The perpetrators of the attacks on New York and Washington, DC on September 11, 2001, although foreigners, were not seeking to settle in America. By contrast, the terrorist episodes over the last decade and more in Great Britain, France, Germany, Spain, and Belgium were the work of immigrants or the children of immigrants.
Another difference between American and European immigration bears on the future of the issue on the two sides of the Atlantic. What makes 21st-century immigration objectionable to many Americans is the fact that so many immigrants have entered their country illegally, the majority of them by sneaking across the country’s southern border. Immigration of this kind embodies not only lawbreaking but also unfairness, penalizing those from other countries who wish to live in the United States but abide by the established rules for doing so. Illegal immigration across the southern border also means that admission to the United States—a basic sovereign prerogative for any country—is partly determined not by the decisions of the duly elected representatives of the American people in Congress, but rather by the whims, the greed, and the guile of human traffickers. This is not, to say the least, consistent with democracy.
Precisely because what many Americans find objectionable about immigration is that much of it is illegal, however, makes it potentially easier to calm the political passions the issue has generated in the United States than in Europe. To the extent that Americans object to the way illegal immigrants reach their country, those objections can be reduced by eliminating the procedure that gives rise to them. If the southern border were to be secured to the satisfaction of the American public—and there may be more expeditious ways to do this than building a wall all along the length of it—then it ought to be easier to reform the nation’s immigration laws. This would involve finding a broadly acceptable status for those who have already entered the country illegally, many of them by now long-time residents. It might also involve adjusting the laws to provide greater access to the country for people with scarce, economically valuable skills, as some other Western countries now do.
Across the Atlantic, by contrast, no such theoretically satisfactory outcome seems available because it is the immigrants themselves to whom the Europeans object, rather than their method of reaching Europe. The wave of newcomers that arrived in Germany in 2015, for example, came at the express invitation of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Because Europe’s immigrants will not leave, the problems they create will persist. This makes for a final difference in the ultimate impact of immigration in the United States and Europe, the most important difference of all.
No matter how troublesome it becomes, immigration does not threaten America’s basic political structure. Some municipalities have declared themselves “sanctuary cities” from which immigrants, even if in the country illegally, may not be removed. This has annoyed the federal authorities, but hardly amounts to the kind of defiance of the power of the Federal government that led, in 1861, to the American Civil War.
In Europe, however, according to Ivan Krastev, the turmoil caused by popular resistance to the ongoing arrival of Asians, Africans, and Middle Easterners in unacceptably large numbers, in combination with the economic distress that the operation of the continent’s common currency, the euro, has inflicted on southern Europe, jeopardizes the survival of the European Union itself. For the United States, immigration is a problem. For Europe it is, in Krastev’s term, “a revolution,” and not one likely to lead to a brighter future.