How the West’s immigration policies clash with values

IN TEXAS an infant is separated from his mother by the federal government to deter others from coming. In the Mediterranean a boat with some 630 migrants on board is prevented from docking at an Italian port, and Italy’s deputy prime minister seeks to boost his popularity by threatening to expel Roma people. In Berlin a coalition government may fall over how to handle immigration (see ). These things might look separate; in fact they are connected.

The failure to gain political consent for immigration has been implicated in the biggest upheavals in the West: Brexit, Donald Trump’s victory, the grip Viktor Orban has over Hungary, the rise of the Northern League in Italy. All these events have pushed politics in a direction that is worrying for those who prefer their markets free and their societies open. This creates a painful trade-off. Resist the demands for more brutal immigration enforcement, and electorates may keep voting for candidates who thrive on blaming foreigners for everything. Accept the solutions proposed by the likes of Mr Trump (see ) or Mr Orban, and Western societies will offend against their fundamental values.

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Take the White House’s approach, which resulted in 2,342 children being separated from their families last month. To use children’s suffering as a deterrent was wrong. It is the sort of thing that will one day be taught in history classes alongside the internment of Japanese-Americans during the second world war. To argue that the administration had to act in this way to uphold the law is false. Neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama, who deported many more people annually than Mr Trump, resorted to separations. To claim it was necessary to control immigration is dubious. In 2000 the government stopped 1.6m people crossing the southern border; in 2016, when Mr Trump was elected, the numbers had fallen by 75%. Deterrence no doubt played its part, but prosperity and a lower birth rate in Mexico almost certainly mattered more. No wonder, after a public outcry, Mr Trump abandoned the policy.

Other examples of deterrence have fared no better. Britain’s government concluded from the Brexit referendum that it should redouble efforts to create a “hostile environment” for immigrants. It ended up sending notices to people who had arrived in Britain from the Caribbean in the 1950s, ordering them to produce documents to prove they were British. The harassment, detention and deportations that followed resulted in the resignation of the home secretary. Likewise, in 2015 European governments argued that rescuing boats carrying migrants from north Africa merely encouraged more to risk that journey. Then as many as 1,200 people drowned in ten days, and Europeans were horrified at the cruelty being meted out in their name. European leaders concluded that voters were not pro-drowning after all.

Shock and awfulness

The left often concludes from this that people calling for enforcement are cruel and racist. But that is wrong, too. In principle countries must be able to secure their borders and uphold the law. In practice a policy of neglect invites a backlash that helps people like Matteo Salvini, leader of the Northern League (slogan: “Italians First”), or Horst Seehofer, Germany’s interior minister, who has threatened to bring down Angela Merkel. The outrage feeds on itself. Mr Salvini wants to deport hundreds of thousands of migrants from Italy; Mr Seehofer wants to send tens of thousands of migrants to Italy.

The Platonic ideal of an immigration policy is one that has the consent of the host country. It treats migrants humanely but also firmly, swiftly returning those who arrived illegally or whose claims to asylum have failed. This is easy to prescribe but hard to enact. Courts are overstretched, many cases are hard to adjudicate and poor countries may not want their citizens back. And so rich countries tend to pay poorer ones to set up vast holding-pens for humans, as Italy does with Libya and the EU does with Turkey. This involves something which would not be tolerated at home, but is somehow acceptable because it is out of sight.

Europeans were right to condemn the separation of children. But they face a wave of migrants from their populous, poor, war-torn neighbours. When they draw up their own policies, they should remember their discomfort this week.

This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline "Separation anxiety"