America’s immigration policy is bad, but not as bad as Europe’s. The answer for America is to assimilate, not restrict.
For decades most European countries have consigned immigrants to the margins: in Germany, some professions were restricted to German citizens well into the 1990s, while eligibility for citizenship itself was based on bloodlines until a landmark reform in 2001. Millions of refugees were legally barred from working, which forced them into squalid welfare dependency. Muslims especially remain unintegrated and ghettoized in many European countries, including France, Britain, and the Netherlands. Now many European countries have tabled important policy reforms such as the drafting of a continentwide asylum policy and the formulation of smarter immigration criteria based on education and skills. Others, like Spain and the Czech Re-public, are actually paying migrants to go away. The danger is that Europe’s worsening hostility toward foreigners will halt or even reverse efforts to assimilate those who are already there, spawning a fast–growing, permanent underclass. According to the OECD, immigrants have been losing jobs at almost twice the rate of native-born citizens during the current crisis, and in many countries the socioeconomic gap between immigrants and natives has begun to grow again.
All this comes at a critical moment for the global economy. Economists predict that global GDP will double in the next 20 years, and as many as 1 billion new, skilled jobs will be created. To avoid being left behind, Europe will need to upgrade its workforce to compete in knowledge-intensive sectors. It can’t afford to neglect the education of its immigrant populations or to give up competing for its share of the global talent pool. If it makes the wrong choice, Europe will become smaller, poorer, and angrier. Instead of attracting newcomers, the continent will watch its own best and brightest decamp for better opportunities in the growing economies of China, India, and Brazil. (The economic booms in Poland and Romania have already been slowed by a severe dearth of skilled workers.)
As Europe fiddles, some countries aren’t standing still. At the onset of the global crisis, the Canadian government briefly considered slashing immigration quotas to protect its labor market. It then decided to keep its borders open and even to speed up acceptance procedures for some highly skilled arrivals. While migrants have lost some ground recently, they’re still twice as likely as native Canadians to hold doctorates or master’s degrees. Even within Europe, there are a few countries doing it right. Sweden wasn’t satisfied with merely implementing a new, skills-based immigration policy; it actually upgraded its integration efforts, including language and vocational training for existing immigrants, right in the middle of the crisis. But much more can be done to attract skilled migrants—raising the number of visas available in professions where shortages already exist, for example, or cutting the red tape that can make it all but impossible to get non–European diplomas recognized. Nations and companies could also do a much better job of recruiting more of the -estimated 1.4 million foreign students currently enrolled at European universities.
At the rate Sweden is going, it will be a more conservative nation than the US in a decade or so.