Immigrants Face Formidable Hurdles in Europe

By Porter, Eduardo | International New York Times, December 9, 2015 | Go to article overview

Immigrants Face Formidable Hurdles in Europe


Porter, Eduardo, International New York Times


Anti-immigrant rhetoric aside, migrants tend to have an easier time integrating into American society than Europe's.

The United States has some of the developed world's most hostile policies toward its immigrant population.

Start with the special police forces dedicated to persecute and deport over a quarter of the nation's immigrants, the estimated 11 million who entered the country without authorization. Then there are the nonexistent labor laws to shield them from wage theft and perilous jobs.

And don't get me started on America's stingy social insurance. Even legal permanent residents are barred from a host of government programs, including Medicaid, food stamps and other welfare programs.

So why is it that immigrants in the United States -- including those here illegally -- have managed to integrate far more successfully into the American economy and its social fabric than foreigners arriving to the relatively coddled states of the European Union, where they often enjoy immediate access to a panoply of rights and benefits?

There is no question that citizens across the West are gripped by anxiety about immigration, whether it is fear of imported terrorism or the xenophobia of natives threatened by ethnic diversity.

But closing the door to Muslims or building a wall across the southern border, Donald Trump notwithstanding, is not going to stop the many immigrants from impoverished fringes of the globe from continuing to make their way toward the wealthy and relatively secure societies of Europe and the United States.

Contrasting the experiences in Europe and the United States could help us better enable immigrants and their descendants to identify themselves and flourish in the new world in which they live. And it will improve the prospects for greater economic growth and less strife for the rest of us.

The very notion of integration is nebulous, of course. By some standards, one could say immigrants to the United States integrate poorly. Rates of naturalization are low. Less educated immigrants often work for very low wages. Immigrant poverty rates in the United States are substantially higher than in the European Union.

Yet progress is evident. Reporting among some of the poorest illegal immigrants toiling on America's farms and construction sites, I have encountered a sense of achievement and possibility that belies their harsh living conditions. It contrasts markedly with the sense of exclusion and alienation reported from immigrant enclaves across Europe.

A report released in September by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine noted than more immigrants buy into the American dream than native-born Americans: 70 percent believe their children will be better off than themselves. Among American-born parents, only 50 percent believe that.

Richard Alba and Nancy Foner, sociologists at the City University of New York, just published the book "Strangers No More" (Princeton University Press). In it, they compare the challenges facing low- status immigrants in North America and Western Europe. In the end, they do not make a definitive call on which experience is best.

"There are complex arrays of similarities and differences," Professor Alba told me.

Still, they identify unique hurdles in the way of immigrants that make it difficult for those coming from outside the bloc to get ahead in Europe.

Among the most salient is Europe's segmented labor market, difficult for newcomers to crack. In the United States, less- educated immigrants may work for little pay. But the vast majority of them work. The employment rate of immigrants is higher in the United States than that of natives. In Europe, it is lower.

A report about the integration of immigrants issued over the summer by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development noted that more than a fifth of Europe's immigrants from outside the European Union are unemployed, about double the rate of Union nationals. …

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