The Atlantic

If Liberals Won’t Enforce Borders, Fascists Will

We need to make hard decisions now about what will truly benefit current and future Americans.
Source: Illustration by Oliver Munday; rendering by Patrick White

I. The Wave That’s Still Building

Through much of the 20th century, the United States received comparatively few immigrants. In the 60 years from 1915 until 1975, nearly a human lifetime, the United States admitted fewer immigrants than arrived, legally and illegally, in the single decade of the 1990s.

If you grew up in the 1950s, the 1960s, or even the 1970s, heavy immigration seemed mostly a chapter from the American past, narrated to the nostalgic strains of The Godfather or Fiddler on the Roof. The Ellis Island immigrant-inspection station—through which flowed the ancestors of so many of today’s Americans—closed in 1954. It reopened as a museum in 1990.

Yet rather than fading into history, immigration has only been accelerating. From 1990 to 2015, 44 million people left the global South to find new homes in the global North. They came from Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

They came to the United States above all, but to the nations of Europe too. The United Kingdom has received nearly as many immigrants, relative to its population, as the United States has. Germany and Sweden have received more. Some 45 million foreign-born people now make their home in the United States. About 11 million to 12 million live here illegally.

As with climate change, separating annual fluctuations from long-term trends is important. Illegal immigration into the United States by Mexicans is now declining. Border crossings by Central Americans are steeply rising. Year by year, immigration numbers may shift up or down. But decade by decade, immigration is remaking nations on a world-altering scale.

By 2027, the foreign-born proportion of the U.S. population is projected to equal its previous all-time peak, in 1890: 14.8 percent. Under present policy, that percentage will keep rising to new records thereafter.

This massive new wave of immigration has brought many benefits to the United States. Of the 122 Americans who won a Nobel Prize from 2000 to 2018, 34 were immigrants. Four of the five Americans who won Nobels in 2016 were born outside the country. Of the 41 Fortune 500 companies created since 1985, eight had an immigrant founder. In many ways, the United States is a stronger, richer, and more dynamic country because of international migration. I am an immigrant myself. Born in Canada, I attended college in the United States, became a permanent resident, raised a family here, and was naturalized in 2007.

But large-scale immigration also comes with considerable social and political costs, and those must be accounted for. In November 2018, Hillary Clinton delivered a warning to Europeans that mass immigration was weakening democracy. “I think Europe needs to get a handle on migration, because that is what lit the flame,” Clinton said, referring to the upsurge of far-right populism destabilizing countries such as France and Hungary. “I admire the very generous and compassionate approaches that were taken, particularly by leaders like Angela Merkel, but I think it is fair to say Europe has done its part, and must send a very clear message—‘We are not going to be able to continue to provide refuge and support’—because if we don’t deal with the migration issue, it will continue to roil the body politic.”

Clinton’s assessment of the European political situation is accurate. According to recent poll numbers, 63 percent of French people believe too many immigrants are living in their country. One-third of the British people who voted in 2016 to leave the European Union cited immigration as their primary reason. In Germany, 38 percent rate immigration as the most important issue facing their country. Thanks in great part to their anti-immigration messages, populist parties now govern Italy, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.

And of course, anti-immigration sentiment was crucial to the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.

Immigration on a very large scale is politically stressful. Yet acknowledging that fact can be hazardous to mainstream politicians. The New York Times story on Clinton’s remarks quoted four scathing reactions from liberal interest groups and academics—and then for icy good measure balanced them with a single approving quote from an Italian politician who had hosted Trump’s former campaign chair, Steve Bannon, in Rome.

It wasn’t always this way, even on the left. As recently as 2015, the senator and presidential aspirant Bernie Sanders defended at least some immigration restrictions in language drawn from the immigration-skeptical tradition of organized labor. “What right-wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy,” Sanders said . “Bring in all kinds of people, work for, lamented, “When I see Mexican flags waved at pro-immigration demonstrations, I sometimes feel a flush of patriotic resentment. When I’m forced to use a translator to communicate with the guy fixing my car, I feel a certain frustration.”

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