• The Pendulum

Immigration and Western Obligation

M.J. Fleck


Refugees and asylum-seekers are pushed from their homes by war, poverty, and persecution. On screens they see London, New York, and their Western kin—bastions of democracy and hope. What used to spread by post or word of mouth is now delivered everywhere by the internet. On the other side, Westerners can see plainly the suffering of those fleeing a less-fortunate geographical inheritance. More can and should be done; Western immigration practices must improve.


According to the United Nations, 68.5 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes. Of these, 25.4 million are refugees residing outside their country. A distorted fear of being overwhelmed by these safety-seekers has driven voters to support or elect authoritarian nationalists in Europe and America. The moral obligation to help has been twisted into a mandate to protect. However, beneath the headlines, numbers, and political theater, immigrant and native worlds in the West are mingling daily and mundanely. It is here the issue should be addressed. An effective immigration-integration framework empowers new arrivals to succeed and get along with their neighbors. Time will bridge the parties eventually, but thoughtful policy can speed the process and eliminate growing pains. Immigration makes a democratic nation more tolerant: it is only a matter of when.


At any port of entry the immigration process becomes the integration process. At this point the immigrant’s future is still opaque. Stability will be sought and clutched where it can be had; often, that lies in familiarity. Ethnic immigrant groups form naturally, in the same way an old classmate is an appealing interlocutor in a crowd of strangers. These groups are one of three formal parties in the integration process; the other two are individual immigrants and societal institutions, which are split into governmental- and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Schools, labor agencies, and the like are government organizations, and are often legally obligated to provide immigrants with the necessary means to live. NGOs are typically nonessential, but can aid integration via language education, religion, or legal representation.

Under a society’s institutions is its “ground level,” which is comprised of ordinary citizens. A county office clerk can do his job and grant an immigrant a driving license, yet go home resenting the foreigners next-door. Ideally, a native might give his neighbors a housewarming gift or invite them to dinner, but such hospitality cannot be relied on, and understandably so: media outlets and opportunistic politicians do not hesitate to wield immigrants as a weapon for their own ends. Breitbart headlines stories claiming, “Global Elite Working to Transform Europe through Mass Migration.” At his campaign launch rally, Donald Trump said of Mexican immigrants, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” These provocateurs instill a fear in voters that elicits a desire for trust and protection, and then claim to be a savior. But their claims are false: leading research robustly rebuts the economic and physical dangers of immigration, and often cites the benefit of it in moderation. The cause of unrest is not immigration itself, but the opportunists who manipulate it for their own gain.


Cultural assimilation eases these tribal anxieties, and native citizens often feel the onus should be on the immigrant to make the bulk of the effort. Claims that they are not doing so can be accompanied by accusations of entitlement. However, cultural identity is not a garment that can be donned upon arrival. At the heart of effective integration policy must be an understanding of the challenges of assimilation and cultural literacy. Immigrants are faced with the adoption of a new culture and inner conflict over how much of their native culture they should retain. It is not the receiving society’s place to make this decision, but thoughtful policy may lighten the load. Free or subsidized language and adult education, NGOs that are encouraged to extend the first hand, sympathetic school systems—even a library card and recommended reading list may help the transition. The society should view such policy as an investment: an empowered immigrant will more quickly become a contributing citizen (e.g. a taxpayer, consumer, or volunteer). In a 2010 report, Brookings Institute scholar Michael Greenstone observed that “the consensus of the economics literature is that the taxes paid by immigrants and their descendants exceed the benefits they receive.” Western citizens may not respond to academic and empirical prose’s pros, but governments should.

This investment pays dividends in tolerance as well. Immigrants have a unique set of skills and experiences. Combined with sufficient education and initial economic assistance, their talents will flourish. Even without, many immigrants have succeeded, enriching their new culture with worldly flavor and perspective along the way.


Early Hollywood, an amorphous frontier of business and creativity, was dominated by first- and second-generation Jewish immigrants. The 20th century American Jazz movement was championed by Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman—also both second-generation Jewish immigrants—who in turn integrated their bands with African-Americans and helped Jazz become a worldwide phenomenon. The majority of Hollywood film directors who have won two or more Academy Awards are first- or second-generation immigrants. One of these directors, the German-born William Wyler, explored in his films (e.g. Ben-Hur) themes of discrimination and empathy. Wyler’s biographer noted that his marginalized status in American society and multilingualism contributed to his perspective.


The artistic contributions made by Wyler and other immigrants act as a second degree tolerance booster: while they earn respect in their immediate sphere, their art, informed by the immigrant experience, opens the minds of wider national (and international) audiences. This continues to happen today: Aziz Ansari’s Emmy-nominated Netflix series Master of None features his parents—Indian-American immigrants—playing themselves, and explores the difficulties of assimilation. The Big Sick, a romantic-comedy based on the life of its screenwriter Kumail Nanjiani (a Pakistani-American immigrant), was one of the highest grossing independent films of 2017. Hamilton, arguably the most important American musical of the 21st century, was created by a second-generation immigrant (Lin-Manuel Miranda), stars a diverse cast, and is based on the life of a first-generation immigrant. These are not exceptions.


Professional sports, academia, and business share the ability to facilitate tolerance. This is because pure capitalism does not discriminate: audiences, clients, customers, foodies, and football clubs all want the best there is, no matter the source. Liverpudlians celebrate Mo Salah, their Golden-Booted Egyptian striker, during Premier League matches. Competition for talented graduate students after World War Two forced Ivy League schools to dismantle quotas on Jews. According to a study by UC Berkeley, between 1995 and 2005 one in four tech startups in America was founded by an immigrant. One was Google.

These success stories not only indicate that immigration promotes tolerance, but that in a capitalistic society it necessarily does so. If a single party accepts immigrants and gains an advantage because of their creativity, innovation, or athleticism, all other parties must as well. Otherwise, they will lose.


A fair rebuttal is the reality of today’s political landscape. However, anger over immigration can be traced to a negative feedback loop. Governments that are defensive and indecisive in their immigration policy tend to be reactive in their integration policy. When immigrants arrive they are not empowered to succeed quickly and, if ghettoized, their status as an “other” is amplified. By the time effective policy is implemented (if at all), opportunistic politicians and media have labeled the current government incompetent and immigrants as dangerous outsiders. Then, instead of allowing the current regime to work things out, voters place someone else in office. It is this mishandling of immigration that undermines tolerance, not immigration itself. Today’s refugee crises have displaced a record amount of people, exposing Western governments’ unpreparedness and straining the insufficient resources allotted to aiding and integrating immigrants. The populist backlash is the loop running its course.

Despite the political turmoil, immigrants throughout history have found a way to succeed. They weather storms in their receiving societies as they did on the journeys to get there. Governments can accelerate the process of assimilation with proactive immigration and integration policy, but even if they do not, tolerance will prevail—it just takes a little longer. Anti-Catholic sentiment spiked in early 20th century America with the mass influx of Catholic immigrants; in 1960 a Catholic was elected President. In 2016 Londoners elected second-generation Pakistani immigrant Sadiq Khan to be Mayor; he succeeded Brexiteer Boris Johnson.


Immigrant contributions to society, both economic and cultural, are as undeniable as the prejudices against them are destined to fade. Their political ascendance punctuates this truth. Broader tolerance is a byproduct of their success, but first and always it is a virtue. Western nations acknowledge this in their constitutions. As developed countries, they have the power and responsibility to put it into practice.

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