Whatever else comes of the Trump campaign and similar movements in Europe, we should hope that they persuade leaders in Washington, Brussels, Berlin, London, Paris, Stockholm, and elsewhere to rethink their approach to immigration. For too long, political elites on both sides of the Atlantic either squashed or avoided serious debates over the topic, even as voters expressed legitimate concerns. This effectively fueled the rise of anti-establishment parties and figures — some more respectable than others — who made immigration their signature issue.
Amid the ongoing border crises in Europe (with migrants from the Middle East and North Africa) and the United States (with migrants from Central America) — not to mention the growing evidence that Western immigration policies are reducing social cohesion, distorting labor markets, and straining government finances — the elite consensus is getting harder and harder to sustain. In fact, there are tentative signs that it may be starting to fracture.
Consider the recent writings of New York Times columnists Tom Friedman and David Brooks, and Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf, the last of whom is perhaps the most respected and influential economic journalist on the planet.
In January, Friedman advocated “controlling low-skilled immigration” as part of his “radical platform” of worthy policy ideas. (Unfortunately, he also advocated “removing all limits on H-1B visas for foreign high-skilled knowledge workers,” despite widespread reports that the H-1B program has been abused by American companies and has hurt American workers.)
A few weeks ago, his Times colleague David Brooks described the ideal legal-immigration reform as follows:
Admit more skilled immigrants and fewer unskilled ones. This would be a giant boon to the economy over all. It would make our immigration policies less geared to serving the elites — giving them ample supplies of nannies and nail polishers. Reducing the supply of unskilled immigrants may do something to raise the wages of unskilled natives and ease their legitimate concerns.
This represented something of a change from the position Brooks took in 2013, when he practically begged House Republicans to pass the so-called Gang of Eight bill, which would have dramatically increased low-skilled immigration. (Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation reported that, under the legislation, “a greater number of immigrants with lower skills than with higher skills would be added to the workforce.”) Back then, Brooks dismissed concerns over the wage impact of low-skilled immigration as “an argument borrowed from the reactionary left.” Now he feels that low-skilled immigration should be curtailed.
As for Martin Wolf, in September he published a column arguing that the consequences of immigration are decidedly mixed, and that reasonable observers can disagree over what level and type of immigration are most desirable for an advanced Western society:
Immigration has economic effects. But it also affects the current and future values of a country, including its concern for foreigners. People may legitimately differ on the correct policies.
Our countries will end up neither closed nor totally open. Striking the balance is hard. In doing so, it is perfectly reasonable for countries to argue that their own citizens always come first.
More recently, Wolf cited immigration policy as Item No. 1 on his list of ways that Western elites can regain the trust of Western publics:
Of all aspects of globalisation, mass immigration is the most disruptive. Movement across borders needs to be brought under control. The presence of 11m undocumented immigrants in the US should never have been permitted. In the case of Europe, regaining control of the borders is an overwhelming priority if the union is even to survive. Refugees must now be the priority. This demands creation of a significant European capacity to promote order beyond the bloc’s borders.
It remains unclear how Europe will resolve its ongoing crisis. German chancellor Angela Merkel has declared, “There is no point in believing that I can solve the problem through the unilateral closure of borders.” Yet one eurozone minister told the Financial Times, “We’re close to our worst nightmare — a negative spiral of closed borders and independent policies.”
For more on the immigration debate here in America, be sure to read my new IWF Policy Focus.