Pull Down the Barriers

JONATHAN POWER

July 24, 1992|By JONATHAN POWER

A recent study made at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research in India estimates that immigration restrictions in the industrialized countries will, by the end of the century, cost the world a loss of $1,000 billion in economic growth. A lot of money.

Common sense suggests that the richest countries should pull all their immigration barriers down and let people wander where they want. All the evidence indicates they will not wander if jobs are not available. Contrary to prejudice, every study I have read shows unequivocally people do not migrate to be unemployed or to claim social benefits. They only move to where the jobs beckon.

We don't live by common sense. If the U.S. and Europe won't allow in Mexican tomatoes, Argentine beef or Indian cloth without prohibitive restrictions, what chance is there of allowing in human bodies? Indeed, what is remarkable in retrospect is not how tight have been the conditions of entry, but how wide the door has been open the last 30 years, particularly in the U.S. and Canada. Since 1960, at least 35 million people have packed up their bags in a poor country and started a new life in a much richer country.

What is even more remarkable, considering what chauvinistic societies most of us live in, is the composition of this flow -- it is Third World-dominated. Until the early 1960s, 80 percent of immigrants to the U.S., Canada and Australia came from other industrialized countries. Today 80 percent are from the Third World. Of course, it is America that has seen the greatest growth in numbers, a 108 percent rise since 1960, compared with a 4 percent increase in Europe.

Until relatively recently, it is the Europeans who have done the protesting, throwing up politicians whose main claim to fame was their vitriolic criticism of the ''open door'' and those who came through it. Enoch Powell, in the Britain of the late 1960s and early 1970s, with his dire warnings of ''rivers of blood'' if nothing were done, panicked the government into almost closing the doors and helped swing enough racist votes to make the difference in a crucial general election, driving the Socialists out of office. France has always been more tolerant of racial differences than Britain, but 20 years on we see the same sort of pressures from the extreme right being brought to bear on its left-of-center government.

Until the advent of Patrick Buchanan in his presidential bid, it appeared, despite the real flood of immigrants -- higher even than during the 19th century -- that America was immune to systematic anti-immigrant campaigning in serious national politics. Buchanan talked of the dangers of America's European heritage being ''diluted,'' and only in the last month two conservative journals, National Review and National Interest have waded in with the same theme.

How is it that America has survived so long without a political battle on the subject? Established, skilled working-class and middle-class Americans have never actually liked immigrants, whether it was Founding Father Ben Franklin opining that there were too many German immigrants, or Steinbeck catching the ugly hatreds of early 20th century California with his ''Grapes of Wrath.'' But deep within the American psyche is the notion that America only works and prospers because of its open door.

The American economy thrives on innovation, enterprise and good, old-fashioned ''push from below.'' It is this that has kept the society afloat when any other economy would have sunk below the waves had it been so mismanaged in respect of its defense spending overdone and its investment, education and social responsibility underdone.

What the Los Angeles riots did, however, was to remind everyone of the price of leaving America's black underclass behind while the new arrivals make it. Most of the anger, as always with black protests, was aimed at white society, but this time there was also manifest a bitter outpouring of resentment against the Mexican and Korean immigrants.

America, like Europe, is being compelled to begin to debate the question: just how much longer can the open door be viably maintained? According to the ''Human Development Report,'' published by the United Nations Development Program, there are 700 million unemployed or underemployed in the Third World. ''If global opportunities do not move toward the people,'' it says, ''then the people will inevitably start moving toward global opportunities."

Unless they are stopped. The debate for the West is essentially about feelings of self-identity, balanced against the urge toward economic gratification. If the barriers go up the industrialized countries will certainly pay a price in terms of economic growth, America in particular which has come to depend on the ''fix'' from below.

The rich countries can mitigate the harm done, to some degree, by retraining their unemployed and, in America, working to save its black underclass from perpetual destitution. They can also remove some of the push by helping the Third World develop, particularly in its impoverished rural backwaters whence most migrants depart. But in the end, so clear are the benefits of an open economy without trade or labor barriers, like it or not, Western electorates will have to choose between their instinctive self-protective, but very understandable sense of enough is enough and the chance to continue to create a wealthy society at the rate the inhabitants of twentieth century industrial society have come to expect.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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