What can we learn about immigration?

Immigration is, and will continue to be, a very hot button issue in the years to come as people seek to flee violence and poverty and find opportunity. Canada has long accepted its small population benefits from skilled workers and has sometimes been generous in settling refugees. More recently, many European countries accepted refugees to varying degrees, often against the wishes of many of their citizens. In the US, the benefits and concerns are well known and are often discussed, but rarely debated. It’s polarizing.

This is an excerpt from a Toronto Globe and Mail article about how Colombia recently has decided to give ten years of legal status to Venezuelan migrants. It’s a surprising story and probably controversial. Colombia is a very conservative country with many divisions and a long history of social conflict. But it’s also a reminder that in many ways developing countries can have very progressive policies. South America is sometimes barely on the global radar. I’m wondering if there is a lesson in this for other places. It sometimes seems to me those many against immigration often benefited from its existence, and not always so long ago. On the other hand, the reality may be less clear than the positive tone of the article.

An excerpt…

*Remarkably, through all its most difficult years, Colombia maintained civil society and democracy, grew its economy, greened its cities and added millions of acres to a national park system already the envy of Latin America…

Then came the greatest humanitarian crisis in the history of the Americas, as Venezuelan refugees, desperate to escape economic ruin and the political tyranny of the Maduro regime, poured across the Colombian frontier at Cucuta. Colombia as a nation faced an existential and moral crisis. Though the diversion of resources was certain to undermine the implementation of a peace process upon which the very hopes and dreams of a long-suffering nation rested, the government did not hesitate for a moment before coming to the aid of what would grow into a sea of humanity, 1.7 million men, women and children fleeing a country incapable of providing its people with even the most basic commodities such as food, gasoline and medicine. Not only did Colombia welcome its desperate neighbours, it fed and housed them, provided medical care and placed their children in schools. It is difficult to recall any other nation, in its own moment of peril, responding to such a crisis with such generosity, decency and grace.

But even this was not enough. On Monday, Colombian President Ivan Duque announced that his government had taken the unprecedented step of unilaterally granting legal status for 10 years to any refugee to have entered Colombia before Jan. 31. In what Filippo Grandi, head of the UN Refugee Agency, described as the “the most important humanitarian gesture” of the last many decades, Mr. Duque with the stroke of a pen transformed the lives of tens of thousands of innocent families fleeing injustice and living in uncertainty, granting them official residency and thus access to universal health care, education and legal employment opportunities. To be sure, there were practical considerations, as Mr. Duque readily acknowledged. “We have close to a million migrants,” he noted in announcing the initiative, “who are in our country whose names we don’t know.” For reasons of national security, public health in a time of COVID-19, law enforcement and political stability, he added, it was essential to bring all of these new arrivals out of the shadows and into the public square.*

The “immigration controversy” has two sides only in the sense that one side is factual and the other is innuendo and fear-mongering. Immigration is demonstrably a net benefit to the US economy, and the immigrant communities have less per capita crime and violence than the population as a whole. (This is not to say that crime is not a problem, but by far the biggest problem is domestic violence which immigrants are often unwilling to report.)

This is not to say that we should just have “open borders” or look for ways to reduce the impetus for immigration, e.g. support political and economic stability and personal liberties in Latin America, for instance, but the idea that immigration is somehow a net cost to the nation or that immigrants are destroying the fabric of society with their weird foods and strange headgear is purely propaganda-driven xenophobia. We of course have a moral duty to accept people escaping from political violence or terroristic threats and at least provide temporary harbor. As a wealthy nation, that is both easily within our means and reflective of the traditional values of the United States as a “melting pot” where people subjugated elsewhere can come for the opportunity to work and live.


Let me just say a word about immigration and unemployment. I lived for 6 months in Switzerland in 1967. The issue de jour there were the Fremdarbeiter, the foreign workers who had been brought in on account of a severe shortage of workers. They were mostly Italian and some Spanish fleeing nothing but a poor economy. Even though some 20% of workers were foreign by 1967, there was still a severe labor shortage. The reason was that these foreign workers also created demand. They still ate food; they still wore clothes; they still needed shelter, all of which created demand. The main economic effect seemed to be a great shortage of housing in Zurich (where I was).

They may have depressed wages a bit. They were mainly doing jobs, Swiss didn’t want to do, at least at the wages paid.

Incidentally, they had work permits, but no real hope of becoming citizens (although they could become permanent residents after something like ten years). And I imagine their children also got permanent residency permits, although I am not even sure of that.

I’m not sure I understand your position: why, as you put it, shouldn’t we just have open borders?

I mean that in the fear-mongering sense of just allowing everyone in without any kind of control. When you talk about immigration reform in the sense of giving a path for people to obtain work/residence permits or citizenship, the Fox Newsheads go crazy claiming that once the floodgates are opened the US will be awash with terrorists, rapists, serial killers, and people looking to defraud welfare, even though literally nobody in the Democratic party is suggesting uncontrolled immigration.


You’re answering a question I didn’t ask.

I’m not asking whether someone is suggesting it: you brought it up, and pointed out in the same breath that you’re not suggesting it; and so I’m asking why you, in particular, don’t.

Why I don’t think we should have literally open borders? I’m not aware of any industrialized nation that doesn’t have some kind of border controls; even within the European Union there is border surveillance even if they aren’t checking identification, and of course the external borders are as tightly controlled as the US (albeit with less restrictive permitting and refugee acceptance). There are, after all, people out there that would like to do harm to the country, and despite recent events not all of them are domestic terrorists.


Colombia and Venezuela were briefly part of the same country, speak the same language, and have fairly similar cultures. For Colombia, Venezuela is a previously better off neighbour that has fallen on hard times. I suspect this may have helped their acceptance of the refugees, although by no means guaranteed it.

Oh, no doubt. A lot of countries seem to dislike their neighbours - and there is often at least a rivalry. History, religion, society and more pernicious things have a lot to do with that. Having a common history makes it easier to justify and lessens the differences (though the “tyranny of small differences” often remains a thing).

I feel, strongly, that the immigrant experience is transformative in a unique and powerful way. For the kids, either the ones that come with a family or are born here, it’s a crucible that often produces diamonds: as the first ones to speak English, they adopt the incredible responsibility of having to be the family’s interface with the world by late elementary school. They live in two radically different cultures and have to figure out how to code switch on their own, and then try to teach their parents how things work here. They feel the crushing obligation to justify their parent’s sacrifices to get them here. It produces responsible, determined adults in a way nothing else does–no way I am going to trust my 9 year old to take on real responsibility, things thatwould hurt the whole family if he failed. But if we were immigrants, I’d have to.

I’ve taught in schools that were 50-70% immigrant/first generation for nearly 20 years, and it’s just obvious to me that this really awful responsibility often makes great people. It’s no shock so many important Americans were the children of immigrants.

Whether or not immigration is beneficial to any given nation depends on the circumstances of that particular nation. Because of an exploding world population, an eroding environment, dwindling nonrenewable resources, and rising sea levels, I expect the displacement of established populations to increase throughout the 21st century. At some point, the benefit vs. cost ratio of any given nation is going to swing against allowing unlimited immigration.

I’m not in the Democratic party, but I do vote almost exclusively for Democrats. And I’m suggesting open borders.

I mean, maybe it’s a definitional thing. I have no problem stopping people and checking to make sure they aren’t fleeing fugitives or carrying contraband, bombs or contagious diseases. That’s fine. But we shouldn’t be turning people away just because we’ve already met the quota for their country this year, or because they don’t have family or a job here. It shouldn’t be illegal to move, whether you’re moving across town or across the continent. Regardless what country you were born in.

I would tend agree with that within certain parameters. We don’t want a Mariel Boatlift situation where some nation uses such openness to offload their criminals and hardcases, nor do we want to create a situation where everybody decides to emigrate to the US instead of distributing the responsibility for accepting migrants the way the European Union does. We also would need a program to help settle immigrants and help them find gainful employment instead of relying on a patchwork of state-level initiatives, private philanthropy, and immigrant community support (although it should work with and within the latter because immigration is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor). The US, and believe it or not, the Republican party, used to support and even encourage immigration specifically because it was both an economic benefit and because immigrants tend to be socially and fiscally conservative in a way that folded into the traditional Republican viewpoint.

We should also be working a bit on our foreign policy particularly supporting stability and accountability in nations with a lot of emigration because there is definitely a larger problem when so many people are so absolutely desperate that they are willing to leave everything they know to take a risk and potentially ruinous journey to come here. But turning people away because we can’t afford to offer basic sustenance and shelter to the desperate, or because “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists…and some, I assume, are good people,” is just xenophobic fear-mongering.


(this post is not meant to pick on you, as you’ve stated you’re pro immigration…)
But, maybe I’m misreading your post. You seem to be lumping immigrants and refugees into the same category. Most immigrants don’t get here (or anywhere for that matter) by boat lift. And once here don’t need much in the way of govt assistance to find jobs and get settled.
DrCube brings up the point I want to make

People in the US move all the time; across town or across the country. Why should it be any different to move across a national border?
The vast majority of “illegal” immigrants in this country are people who have just moved. That’s it, they’ve just moved. They’re not here to soak up “precious” resources, suckle at the govt teat. They’ve just moved. Just as I recently moved from CA to IL. There are requirements for such a move, no question. Like getting a new drivers license, and paying taxes to a different state. But no prohibitions. Just as it should be for immigrants. Rules and regs but no prohibitions.

And now I realize that we’ve gotten a little far afield from the op.
What I think we can realize and learn from the situation in Colombia and other places, is that taking in refugees and immigrants while sometimes costly and difficult is a greater benefit to all involved.

To all involved?

That’s what I said.
And that’s what I meant.
There are always consequences and costs to every decision. And allowing free immigration or Taking in large amounts of refugees is no different. There will be costs. Some people may bear that burden to a much greater extent than others. But it will be a net benefit to society in the long run. And when society benefits we all do! All of us.

Another example of what the OP is talking about is Uganda. As of a few years ago, at least, the country contained 14 known South Sudanese refugees for every 100 citizens. The true number is probably a lot higher, because many of them aren’t reported officially, but taken in by family who’s already there. And the refugees are treated just like the citizens are.

I’m genuinely trying to follow this line of thought, and try as I might I don’t see why you’re framIng this in all-or-nothing terms.

You say “allowing free immigration” will be a net benefit to society in the long run. If that’s true, then I’d figure it means this: if each would-be immigrant were to make a case for why he or she would provide a net benefit or a net loss to our society, then you’d expect so many of them to provide so much of a net benefit as to outweigh however many of them would be a net loss.

But if that’s true, then why not — well, have them make that case? Why not prepare to roll out a red carpet for those who make that net-benefit case, but don’t for the ones who, y’know, don’t?