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It is one of the clichés of geopolitical analysis that the US is uniquely blessed by its geographic position. Unlike China or Russia, which have many potentially hostile neighbours, the US has oceans on either side — and friendly neighbours with much smaller economies, to the north and south.
But I wonder whether, when it comes to one of the hot issues of our day — unauthorised and uncontrolled immigration — America’s geographical position is actually much more of a burden than a benefit. The US has much poorer neighbours to the south and a huge land border to protect. The result is that all politicians are going to struggle to control flows of migrants into the US. That was true even of Donald Trump who was willing to accept truly brutal measures, such as the separation of families.
Mexico is not just a much poorer country. It also has a rampant crime problem and poor law enforcement — which gives many people every incentive to try to move north. And indeed it is not just the downtrodden of Mexico who are willing to take terrible risks in the hope of a better life in the US. There are also many thousands of people from Central America and from Venezuela trying to cross into America.
Now, as you know, the crisis is flaring up again with the expiration of Title 42 — a coronavirus pandemic-era policy that allowed for the swift expulsion of undocumented migrants on public health grounds. Now, border authorities are braced for a big surge in border crossings. Indeed, I gather it is already happening.
As I pointed out in my column this week, the numbers in America dwarf those in Europe. Britain is having an agonised debate over how to “stop the boats” of would-be migrants crossing the Channel. Last year that was 45,000 people. But if the projections of 13,000 a day arriving in the US over the next week are correct . . . well, as they say, “you do the math”. Even on a per-capita basis, the US figures are much higher. (Britain’s population is 67mn, compared to 333mn in the US.)
It is true that Britain is much more densely populated than the US. We have less space. But reports in the US papers illustrate that cities like New York and Chicago are already struggling to cope with new inflows of migrants — almost all of whom need shelter and care.
I’m intrigued how you think the politics of all of this are going to work out. My guess is that it’s a gift to Trump, as he launches his presidential campaign. After all, his original and most famous slogan was “Build the Wall”. He has no compunctions about demonising Mexicans as criminals and rapists (ironic, given, his own legal problems). And rightwing TV channels and talk-radio will do his work for him by whipping up emotions about “unstoppable” streams of migrants.
It was part of Trump’s malign political genius that he was able to spot that the Republican Party was ripe to turn into a nativist, anti-immigration party. During the Bush years — and even during the Mitt Romney campaign of 2012 — it was received wisdom that a hard line on migration would alienate the Hispanic voters that the GOP would need in the future. Trump seems to have shown that it ain’t necessarily so. One fascinating aspect of the last presidential election was that his share of the Hispanic vote actually went up. Maybe those who have already made it into the country by legal routes (or who have regularised their status) are less sympathetic to people trying to cross the border illegally than was often assumed.
I’m also intrigued about how the Democrats are going to handle this. Joe Biden seems to want to show that he’s going to be tough and will control border crossings — hence, the new rules that will make it much harder to claim asylum on arrival in the US. But it seems to me that he will never be able to outbid the Republicans among the group of voters who demand draconian measures. Meanwhile, ever tougher border controls are bound to generate the kind of humanitarian horror stories that will (rightly) make the administration squirm.
I know some people (mainly from my kids’ generation) who argue that since it’s impossible to stop illegal migration — without resorting to brutal and unacceptable methods — the government should effectively stop trying. After all, they say, these migrants will mainly work and contribute to the economy.
I can see the argument. But I worry that if all controls came off, you would get even larger numbers crossing the border. That, in turn, would probably generate an even stronger populist backlash and the election of Trump — or a Trump-like candidate. The policies that would then be enacted would make life even worse for would-be migrants and undocumented workers already inside the country.
So, I’m in the bad position for a columnist, of not really having any bright ideas to recommend. I’m intrigued to know what you think, Rana. You’re often willing to break with liberal orthodoxy. What is your take on this?
Edward Luce is away and will return next week.
Rana Foroohar responds
Gideon, I fear that you may be correct about Republicans trying to make political hay with this issue. They are able to do that by working the racist, cultural angles on this — it’s stunning to me how many people in places like Arizona, for example, worry about the country being somehow overrun by migrants, when in fact, they wouldn’t be able to afford to have their yards groomed or their children cared for if we didn’t have migrants. It’s true that public services in places like New York may struggle with an influx, but I have to say that I don’t hear many people complaining about it, at least not yet. Anyone who eats out at a restaurant or needs construction done or has any sort of care issues understands how essential migrants are to the economy. Indeed, many economists believe that immigration, at both the high end and the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, is the reason that the trend GDP growth rate in the US is about a percentage point higher than in Europe. On that note, as I wrote in a recent column:
Over the past two and a half years, immigration into the American labour market has increased by 4mn workers, and the working age immigrant population has now finally reached its pre-pandemic trend level. This is likely to be a central factor in strong employment growth, particularly in leisure and hospitality. It is also part of the story on increasing workforce participation, as well as being good news for the fight against inflation. As Apollo’s chief economist Torsten Sløk put it in a recent note to clients, “immigration is a key reason that the US labour market is gradually moving from very overheated to less overheated. The fact that immigration is now moving to levels above 2019 is going to be very positive for the labour market, and for the Fed’s inflation challenge.”
Aside from pulling more women into the workforce, increasing immigration is the only quick way to bolster the labour force in any nation. Birth rates are on the decline in most rich countries, and robots and job-displacing AI software come with their own economic and political disruptions. In the US, immigration accounted for about half of the growth in the working age population between 1995 and 2014 according to Pew Research. Unfortunately, between Donald Trump’s “build a wall” jingoism and the Covid pandemic, there was then a sharp drop in immigrant workers. Over the course of four years, according to a February paper from the San Francisco Federal Reserve, the Trump administration took 472 executive actions aimed at reducing immigration, from increasing immigration enforcement to freezing refugee admissions to moving away from family immigration. Between 2016 and 2019, the number of new permanent residents dropped 13 per cent and the number of student F1 visas declined 23 per cent.
So basically, the hundreds of anti-immigration executive orders that Donald Trump put in place were really bad for the economy, and what Joe Biden has done is good. Yes, there will be more cross-border migration now. But frankly, these are exactly the sort of risk-taking, hard-working people we want in our country even when they come in large numbers (a point that Ian Goldin made in his book Exceptional People). The problem is that messaging isn’t always as easy as the dog-whistling that Republicans do.
And now a word from our Swampians . . .
In response to “Are slackers keeping the labour market hot?”:
“I am intrigued by Rana’s comments above that working for yourself gives you so much more control of your time, and I suspect that this is highly situational. I used to be a senior-ish manager in a substantial company and as such most of my meetings were with employees or service providers and were organised around my schedule. There were regular management meetings I had little control over but they were twice a month and set well in advance. Then I started to work as an independent consultant and basically I found myself at the beck and call of clients and potential clients, with far less predictability and control of my schedule.” — Reader hangonaminute
We’d love to hear from you. You can email the team on [email protected], contact Ed on [email protected] and Rana on [email protected], and follow them on Twitter at @RanaForoohar and @EdwardGLuce. We may feature an excerpt of your response in the next newsletter