Transatlantic lessons on immigration policymaking

Recent political decisions in Europe and the United States have added new uncertainty to contentious immigration policy debates. A historical perspective, however, underscores the lasting value of shrewd, cautious, and consistent political leadership in what is likely to be an ongoing process of policy reformulation over the next several years.

On February 6, sluggish efforts to “overhaul” U.S. immigration policy stalled. An omnibus bipartisan Senate bill passed last year, but House Republicans waited many months to develop an alternative stepwise approach — first tighter controls, then limited and conditional amnesty for illegal immigration — and now expect to pursue it only next year. On February 9, Switzerland voted to completely rethink its decade-old open border policy toward immigration from most of the European Union (EU). Thus, America will now further delay repairing an immigration system its politicians all agree is “broken,” while Switzerland, rather than long-muted supplemental mitigation measures, confronts potentially complete replacement of a system none have deemed “broken.”

Switzerland has roughly the size and population of California’s four southernmost counties. The foreign-born population is somewhat higher. Many work in construction, domestic service, restaurants, gardening and agriculture. About one-tenth are daily border-crossers; the volume into Geneva alone is nearly as high as Tijuana-San Diego.

The razor-thin 50.3 percent “Yes” vote for the Swiss initiative was as much a protest against creeping de facto EU membership as a plea for reduced immigration. The devil is in yet-to-be determined implementation details, but in principle the vote requires nothing more extreme than some variant of the quota systems widely used in Europe and North America for most of the 20th century.

The EU, however, opposes allowing an affiliated nonmember to cherry-pick terms of integration, despite new clamor in some member countries for such Swiss-style “direct democracy.” The Swiss government is thus now between that EU rock and hard place of a domestic mandate to revise only the immigration element of its bilateral European integration agreements. Switzerland is fond of the initiative instrument, and since 2000 six others have concerned immigration, but none has thrown as much sand into political gears. (California’s system of referendums and initiatives — such as the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 of 1994 — was established in 1911, and consciously adapted from Switzerland.)

Immigration is a key component of human history and today’s global economy, but immigration policymaking can be a political minefield where a single false step can spell disaster. Typical ideological categories fit poorly. Conservatives welcome imports of labor but not potentially associated cultural and social change. Liberals praise ethnic diversity and freedom of movement while fearing environmental and wage pressures. International migration usually yields overall net economic gains, but locally there are both losers and winners. Migration is risk-laden and can raise many anxieties, real and imagined. Finally, those most impacted tend to view migration in personal terms. Astute politicians carefully monitor resulting, sometimes heated, emotions.

The historical effectiveness of migration controls is often overrated, and jobs and family networks underrated. During the early 1900s, when a transatlantic steerage ticket cost about three weeks U.S. wages, and 1 percent of U.S. arrivals were rejected, immigration relative to population was not much higher than today. During the 1908 recession there was a net outflow to Europe (and century later, following the 2008 financial crash, to Mexico).

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Transatlantic lessons on immigration policymaking
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