The Mistaken Assumption That Immigration Is Inevitable

The notion that mass movement is foreordained distorts our politics, galvanizing anti-immigrant forces and lulling progressives into complacency.

An illustration of figures on both sides of a tall fence
Gabriela Pesqueira / The Atlantic

“They keep coming. The numbers are climbing with no end in sight,” claims an ominous voice over images of migrants crowded at the southwestern U.S. border. The implication of the 30-second spot sponsored by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which lobbies for lower immigration, is that the mass migration of people across borders is inevitable. On that point, even many immigration advocates agree. Only their interpretation is different: If large-scale population movement is inevitable, they argue, the receiving countries—and especially wealthy liberal democracies such as the United States—need fairer, more humane systems for processing people as they arrive.

The widespread assumption that immigration is inevitable shapes public discourse in other ways. To light a fire under Western governments only sluggishly moving to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, climate activists have cited a looming migration of people from countries prone to floods, fires, extreme storms, and desertification. Supporters of an internationalist foreign policy paint the many Ukrainians streaming across Europe’s borders so close on the heels of the 2015 influx of Syrian refugees as evidence of a foreordained future, in which those displaced by a surge in conflict will force open Europe’s doors.

Book cover of 8 billion and counting
This piece is adapted from Sciubba’s recent book.

But as I explain in my new book, 8 Billion and Counting: How Sex, Death, and Migration Shape Our World, this rhetoric does not match reality. It has, however, distorted the politics of the U.S. and other wealthy nations by galvanizing anti-immigrant forces while lulling progressives into complacency. In practice, national governments can and do exercise considerable control over how many people cross their borders. People fleeing conflict, displaced by environmental changes, or just hoping for a better life may try to come to liberal democracies. But those states don’t have to take them—and probably won’t, unless immigration advocates convince the general public that an influx of newcomers is desirable rather than inevitable.

Even after Donald Trump, who pursued a “zero tolerance” immigration policy, left office, the U.S. has continued his restrictive approach using a policy known as Title 42, which, since March 2020, has allowed the U.S. to remove people who were recently in a country where a communicable disease was present. Critics see this as a border-enforcement mechanism masquerading as a COVID-19 measure; under first a Republican administration and then a Democratic one, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has used it to expel more than 1.7 million would-be immigrants and asylum seekers along the southwestern U.S. border. (Yesterday, the Biden administration floated the idea of lifting Title 42 in late May.)

Contrast recent American gatekeeping at the Mexican border with Colombia’s more welcoming response to the mass displacement of people from Venezuela, its economically and politically troubled neighbor. Colombian President Iván Duque recently offered 10-year residency permits to nearly 1 million Venezuelans living in Colombia.

In Europe as in the Americas, individual nations differ significantly in their willingness to admit migrants. More than 1.1 million people applied for asylum in European Union countries in 2016. Although 61 percent of cases received a positive decision overall—largely driven by Germany, which issued approvals in 69 percent of its 631,000 cases—France approved only 33 percent, the United Kingdom (then an EU member) 32 percent of cases, and Greece just 24 percent. But the welcome mat can just as easily be rolled up as rolled out. As citizens in many European democracies soured on immigration in the second half of the 2010s, even Germany denied more than 50 percent of first-time applicants in 2020.

The initial European response to Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion has been generous. But just a month into the brutal conflict, officials in Moldova, Ukraine’s smallest neighbor, are already saying that refugees are putting their country under strain. Past experience elsewhere in the world suggests that host nations’ resolve to support a huge exodus may not last as long as the crisis will.

Predictions of future human mobility—voluntary and forced—frequently focus on the dozens of “push” factors, such as crime and poor job prospects, that could drive people from their home country. The pressures that create emigration will continue in the future. Changing climates will make earning a living difficult for many people, and natural disasters will render some currently populated areas dangerous or even uninhabitable. The global retreat of democracy could yield more civil conflict and an increase in forced-displacement trends. But even if emigration from a troubled country is inevitable, immigration to a wealthy, peaceful one is far from it. Liberal democracies will not open their borders enough to accept all those seeking refuge.

Similarly, the “pull” factors that make a country attractive to migrants do not guarantee their legal entry. As America’s population ages, unless it can boost its fertility rate (which isn’t looking likely), the country will have to either accept more immigrants to supplement native-born workers or else face the consequences of a shrinking labor force. Experts have made the same argument in Japan, where low fertility would seem to have made immigration an economic necessity. But Japanese voters and public officials continue to resist proposals to invite migrants from elsewhere in Asia. Although Japan has the world’s oldest population, immigrants make up only about 2 percent of its residents, and the country imposes significant institutional barriers to discourage immigrants from settling permanently.

Sovereign nations, for reasons of their own, can and do enact restrictive immigration policies even when doing so is not in their best economic interest. Domestic political concerns—including those in response to fears of ethnic change—can prop up anti-immigration laws indefinitely. I have previously argued that, far from trying to keep immigrants out, the United States should build a wall to keep them in.

Perpetuating the narrative of inevitable immigration has consequences for a country’s politics. Demographic analysis frequently suffers from what psychologists call desirability bias—the data appear to show exactly what the observer wishes to be true. For those who wish to welcome migrants—or who stand to benefit politically from demographic change—the presumption that the flow will always continue may breed inaction and complacency.

In the U.S., that presumption made the Democratic Party overly confident about its long-term electoral prospects. “Many Democrats came to believe that long-term demographic trends would inexorably produce a Democratic majority,” Elaine Kamarck and William Galston—both policy experts who served in the Clinton administration—argued in The Wall Street Journal in February. “The expectation was that decades of robust immigration from Latin America and the Asia-Pacific region would steadily increase the diversity of the U.S. population. As these Americans entered the electorate, they would join forces with other people of color—especially African-Americans and Native Americans—to strengthen support for the Democratic Party.”

But voters’ political affiliations are not fixed. Although people of color make up a growing share of younger voters, many Hispanic voters of all ages are shifting to the Republican Party, seemingly out of frustration with the Democratic platform or party norms that seem divorced from their values on a variety of issues, including immigration.

Of course, the narrative of inevitable immigration can also increase some voters’ resolve to keep would-be newcomers out. Governments respond to those pressures. Many democratic countries have used extreme measures to deter would-be asylum seekers from crossing into their borders. Australia has created offshore processing centers that prevent migrants from ever setting foot on the country’s soil; the U.S. has followed a “Remain in Mexico” policy to keep Central American migrants at bay; and the EU criminalized rescues at sea in 2017. In lieu of permanently settling refugees, Denmark chose to issue temporary residency permits in many cases, a move supported by politicians on both the right and the left. And now that many Danes are ready for those Syrians to leave, Denmark has instituted a plethora of policies designed to force them to return home, including a “jewelry bill” entitling the Danish government to seize asylum-seekers’ assets to build the country’s funds.

Immigration advocates, including those in the private sector who are hoping that immigrants will fill skills gaps, need to push for legal changes to increase immigration, rather than simply assuming that immigration will happen no matter what.


This piece is adapted from Sciubba’s recent book, 8 Billion and Counting: How Sex, Death, and Migration Shape Our World.

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