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Thriving on Immigration

The U.S. experience offers Europe hope that the process of cultural digestion is manageable.

Credit: Christopher Penler


  • The surge of migration into Europe is testing social and political structures in the continent.
  • The US immigration experience offers hope that the process of cultural digestion is manageable.
  • Benjamin Franklin in 1751: “Why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our settlements.”

There is no doubt that the surge of international migration into Europe is testing social and political structures throughout the continent.

Yet, the idea that it will be quite impossible for Europe to absorb an influx of tens of thousands – perhaps millions – of people with foreign language and other cultural expectations is far too pessimistic.

In the United States, the story of massive undocumented immigration is not yet over, but the U.S. experience offers hope that the process of cultural digestion is manageable.

For much of its history, the United States sought immigration, to populate and then expand its frontiers.

When it all started

But even before immigration was broadly restricted in 1924, earlier immigration excited nativist backlash against the Irish, Chinese, Italians, Jews, and Slavs who arrived from the 1840s onward in a succession of waves.

Anti-Irish riots in Philadelphia in 1844 resulted in at least 15 deaths. A few year later, the “Know Nothing,” anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic party, captured more than 20% of the seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

As early as 1875, Chinese and later all Asian immigration to the United States was restricted. In the 1880s, Chinese were expelled from many towns in the west of the United States and dozens of Chinese were killed by white mobs.

Resentment since ages ago

Nineteenth century hostility toward immigrants was not new. Indeed, in 1751, a quarter century before American independence no less a figure than Benjamin Franklin wrote of the contemporary German(!) immigrants:

Why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our settlements, and by herding together establish their languages and manners to the exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion?

The United States survived its Teutonic invasion.

Recent U.S. history also gives hope that massive immigration can be socially enlivening rather than corrosive.

Focusing only on undocumented or illegal immigration, The Pew Research Center estimates that, from 1990 to 2007, the number of such immigrants living in the United States increased from 3.5 million to 12.2 million. (Since 2007, the total has fallen slightly.)

From 1990 through 2005, average annual undocumented net immigration ran at more than a half million people per year, about 1,500 per day.

More than half of these immigrants were concentrated in only four states/regions: California, Texas, New York-New Jersey and Florida.

Still, nearly three million of the new migrants after 1990 went to other states than these. Backlash to immigration, let alone undocumented immigration, in Iowa, North Carolina and Arizona is seldom out of the news.

In pursuit of equal rights

So far, though, Donald Trump and the Republican core notwithstanding, this latest wave of migration, too, is becoming part of the American mainstream.

Defiant young adults, who arrived with their tired, poor parents, yearning to breathe free are demanding the same opportunities the United States provides the children born of regular immigrants.

Chances are good that these children of undocumented immigrants will get their opportunities and that the Unites States will not only survive, but prosper as a result.

With roughly the same population as the United States, the parts of Europe facing immigration do not seem to be overburdened.

One may hope that all will live in peace and prosper.

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About Bernard Wasow

Bernard Wasow is Mexico based and a former professor of economics at New York University.

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