Part IV – The Pressure to Migrate

258 million people in 2017 lived outside their countries of birth, a new record. Their share of the total population was also up – 3.4%. Migration is on the rise. Why? David Frum claims that it is not poverty per se pushing migration but rising economic prospects. Even though poverty and violence push people to leave their home countries, for Frum, “immigration is accelerating so rapidly in the 21st century less because of pervading misery than because life on our planet is improving for so many people.” Only those with money can pay the high costs to migrate, including paying bribes to people smugglers. It is those strivers who “want more than anything else—the great golden ticket into a whole new life— … exit from the less successful countries of the global South into the more successful countries of the global North.”

The numbers of potential migrants as countries improve their economic well-being is enormous. Further, as the rates of population increase in those countries are already very high, the pressure is increased even more. For Frum, the problem is not building walls to keep those migrants out but devising management tools to restrain and eliminate the pressure. That means setting meaningful and enforceable immigration levels, selection rules and mechanisms for enforcement. Thus, in the end, Frum believes that the central issue is management and that corresponds with the dominant concern of most citizens.

The dilemma: the supply is enormous but the demand is relatively small. “Hundreds of millions of people will want to become Americans. Only a relatively small number realistically can.” This means that immigration is much more about creating dams than selecting new candidates for immigration in a world that is “better educated, more mobile, more networked.” Frum starts at the same place Trump does: the disproportionate percentage of immigration taken up by family reunification – 70% – leaving relatively little room for attracting skills and talent, especially given the other large feature in American immigration, the lottery system. 50,000 are legally admitted into the U.S. by lottery.  

David Frum is not an anti-immigrant troglodyte. He well recognizes the role immigrants have played in making America strong both economically and culturally. He also recognizes the negative effects when immigrants are characterized as unwelcome. Further, he also sees the importance of immigration in increasing the ratio of workers relative to retired members of the work force given the challenge of an ageing demographic and declining birth rates among Canadian citizens. While Trump is trying to rejig the system to increasingly favour economic migrants, he is also trying to lower the overall intake while Canada in 2018 welcomed more than 286,000 new permanent residents and planned to grow its overall intake to 340,000 by 2020. In 2017, 56% of immigrants to Canada were in the economic class in the selection system. The larger the overall intake, the greater flexibility in selection on economic grounds.

There are critical arguments for family reunification immigration which allow permanent residents and citizens to be reunited with family members. But the Canadian program focuses on the nuclear family – minor children, spouses and parents of permanent residents and citizens and, further, restricts their numbers to about one-third of the intake, about half the percent in American migration. In America, there are also no numerical caps on nuclear family reunification. This allows Canada to take into the country about 60% of migrants within the economic class that includes selection based on skills and education as well as the investor class, a Canadian invention copied by the Americans. Further, the goal is not simply family reunification per se, but attracting, retaining and integrating newcomers. Family reunification has become an adjunct to selection. 

By increasing the percentage of economic migrants, the success rate of economic and cultural integration is also improved. In Canada, economic migrants after five years of residence exceeded Canadian average earnings by 6% and were much more likely to be working compared to native-born Canadians. As Frum wrote, “Too little immigration, and you freeze your country out of the modern world. Too much, or the wrong kind, and you overstress your social-insurance system—and possibly upend your democracy. Choose well, and you build a stronger, richer country for both newcomers and the long-settled. Choose badly, and you aggravate inequality and inflame intergroup hostility.”

But the wrong kind? Too much? And the threat to democracy? The last confuses those who threaten democracy with the targets of the agents undermining democracy. It is akin to blaming the chicken for being eaten by the fox. Frum means by the wrong kind those who used to work in manufacturing but are no longer needed when mature knowledge economies need trained and highly educated individuals. However, as the service sector also expands rapidly, unskilled immigrants are also needed and this creates a problem for governments trying to strike the right balance.

However, the biggest threat to the U.S. or Canada does not come from immigration at all but from the effect of large-scale immigration on the perception of the native-born. As Frum quotes, for many, “Things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country.” However, change can be perceived as frightening if political leaders and image shapers say it is. On the other hand, if immigration is advertised and promoted as an exciting challenge and excellent nourishment for the country, the nay-sayers tend to slip into silent mode. Immigration per se is not frightening. Mismanagement can be.

At this point, repeating a story that I have oft told is instructive. In 1979, at the beginning of the enhanced Indochinese Refugee Program and the promise to the private sector to match one sponsorship from the private sector with an additional government sponsorship, two full page ads appeared in sequence in Canada’s national newspaper of record sponsored by the National Citizens’ Coalition (NCC). The first ad claimed that each refugee taken into Canada would sponsor 16 others. The second ad claimed that, according to a survey the organization sponsored, most Canadians opposed the intake of 50,000 Indochinese refugees.

The first ad was simply untrue and based on dated policies. The second ad, though based on misleading questions, turned out to be not far from the truth. When doing research later, I learned that the government itself had conducted a fair poll that found that a majority of Canadians opposed the intake of 50,000 Indochinese refugees, not by as substantial a margin as the National Citizens’ Coalition poll, but close enough. 56% of Canadians opposed the intake of Indochinese refugees.

Virtually every organization – the Canadian Medical Association, the associations for dentists, pharmacists, nurses, engineers, architects, etc. – had all passed motions supporting the intake. The private sponsorship movement was succeeding beyond its wildest dreams. Yet the ads caused enormous consternation in the private sector, not because it threatened any policy change, but because it would create a divisive public for integrating the refugees successfully. Operation Lifeline launched an initiative poorly named Operation Intellectual Kneecapping.

The leaders approached a prominent supporter of the NCC who agreed to deal with the problem. He, in turn, approached a number of wealthy friends and supporters of the NCC, traditionally a right-wing anti-government bureaucracy business lobby which campaigned against public sector unions and for lower taxes. He readily gained his friends’ support. He then threatened Colin Brown, the founding director, that if he continued his anti-Indochinese refugee campaign, he and his friends would not only withdraw their financial support, but would contact their wealthy friends across Canada to do the same. Nothing more was heard from the National Citizens’ Coalition on the subject of refugees.

Without a vocal leadership, the opposition to the refugee intake had no impact, even though they were a majority voice, with many of the anti-Indochinese motives based on racism against Asians. Managing the intake of migrants and refugees requires not only setting in place selection policies and numbers, but establishing a network of support in civil society and working hard with public relations to tamp down a good deal of racist sentiment in the guise of protecting and holding onto one’s inherited “culture.” It is a dimension that David Frum ignored in spite of his own personal excellent record of helping refugees.

Frum wrote, “When natives have few children, immigrants look like replacements.” This line recalled in my mind the white nationalist marchers in their Charlottesville torchlight parade chanting, “Jews will not replace us. Jews will not replace us.” A group does not require a lot of children for racists to drum up the false replacement phobia. They do require some vocal elite leadership to legitimize their prejudices. Though, as Frum points out, they are generally not susceptible to persuasion, they are susceptible to delegitimization through leadership, which, in the U.S., Trump did not provide but which the Canadian elites and the federal Progressive Conservative government did provide in 1979.

The issue is not, as Frum contends, “perceived threats to social norms,” but a leadership prepared to legitimize racist norms. Social and economic factors can exacerbate the problem and reinforce the opposition, but in 1979 a recession had begun in Canada. However, the economic situation without that vocal leadership could not legitimize the replacement phobias of the Right.  Further, when in Canada and even in the United States, racism has been in serious decline as a motivating factor in behaviour over the last forty years, catering to the sensibilities of the replacement extremists is not the path to take to support a well-managed immigration and refugee system.

At this point, it would be helpful to examine the connection between populism and an anti-immigration sentiment.

To be continued


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