Not that many years ago, just about the only people who tried to slip into a foreign country without a visa or even a passport were criminals on the run or professional spies. Today, millions take it for granted that they will be let in and treated kindly, perhaps given a decent house, if they say they are fleeing wars, persecution or desperate poverty. What is more, they are supported by influential groups whose leaders say it is heartless to keep would-be immigrants out. Are they all in favour of open borders? Most say they are not, that there is a limit to the number of outsiders any country can reasonably be expected to accommodate, but insist that far more should be allowed in than have already arrived.
Theirs is a minority view. In all rich countries, a majority would much prefer immigration, whether legal or not, either to be brought to a complete halt or made more “meritocratic,” with professionals or skilled workers who could make a positive contribution to the host country from the word go getting entry permits while the rest get sent home to do the required paperwork before applying in the time-honoured way.
In practical terms, advocates of controlled immigration are winning the argument. Despite the opposition of those who think the world would be a better place if frontiers were abolished and freedom of movement made a recognised human right, more countries are adopting systems in which academic achievements and the like weigh heavily.
Unfortunately, attempts to persuade people in poor parts of the world that they will be kept out of Europe or North America unless they are in a position to fit in almost immediately, as used to be the case, have yet to register fully. Thanks to the hard line taken by the Italian government, fewer Africans and others than a couple of years ago are trying to cross the Mediterranean in ramshackle boats in the belief that if they land they will be allowed to stay, though there are still plenty of them. And the United States is currently facing an influx of Central Americans backed by members of the Democratic Party out to make life difficult for Donald Trump, who wants his country’s southern border to be made impenetrable. Though his policy is not that different from the one put in force by Barack Obama – who in his day was dubbed the “deporter-in-chief” because of his determination to apply the law – enough abuses have been reported to make it easy for his detractors to accuse him of behaving like a totalitarian dictator.
Deciding what are legitimate reasons for letting outsiders in is difficult. Both Europeans and North Americans tend to hark back to the first half of the 20th century and the years before the Cold War ended when many highly talented scientists, writers and artists had to flee for their lives from Nazis, Fascists and Communists, and say it should be clear that a large proportion of the men, women and children who are clamouring to be allowed in could make an equally important contribution to any country that accepted them. No doubt some could, but most happen to be at best semi-literate and many would be certain to end on welfare. The difference is that back then those willing to face the risks involved in expatriating themselves were for the most part welleducated, while today just about anyone stuck in the Middle East, Africa or the worst countries of Latin America is prepared to so.
They can hardly be blamed for wanting to get out of places such as Somalia, Eritrea, Syria, Iraq, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and, more recently, Venezuela, and trying their luck in North America or Europe where, the media and their relatives tell them, life can be so much better. In similar circumstances, most of us would do the same. But neither can North Americans or Europeans be blamed for wanting them to stay away. It is not “racist” to feel it would be disastrous for one’s own country to become more like those immigrants want to leave behind, which is what happens because most bring their own customs and values with them.
The great immigration surge is in part a consequence of technological progress; even in the remotest areas of the planet people are now well aware of what the developed world has to offer. But technological progress is also reducing the need for unskilled workers, which makes it even harder than before for uneducated immigrants to find the low-level jobs that traditionally have been available for those who don’t speak the local language well and can only perform menial tasks. In the rich countries, what to do about the unskilled working class is already a major problem – one that is sure to get even bigger in the coming years – so increasing the number of those who fall into that category can hardly be considered a sensible option.
That is why more governments are showing an interest in discriminating between the welleducated and rest, but such a policy has an obvious drawback. Is it really in the rich world’s interest to denude poor countries of their doctors, engineers and entrepreneurs when these are precisely the people they will need to make them going concerns? Should not host countries reimburse poor ones for the money they have spent on the men and women they invested in because they expected they would help them develop?
Having come to the conclusion that open
doors is not a viable policy, Western leaders
now say far more should be done to help the
countries people are running away from so
their inhabitants no longer feel that to have any
hope of a better life they have no choice but to
emigrate. Just how that could be done without
kicking out their current regimes and turning
them into protectorates or colonies is hard to
say. Imperialism fell out of fashion when people
realised that the costs far exceeded the benefits, not because it was suddenly appreciated
that ruling over foreigners was morally wrong,
but what those who say more ought to be done
to make El Salvador, say, more like the US are
suggesting is that others should assume responsibility for its internal affairs, much as did
the imperialist powers when it seemed obvious
that many countries were not ready for selfgovernment and therefore should be administered by people who presumably would be capable of teaching them how to go about it.