Immigration inevitable, so let’s manage it better

Name the country whose highest court recently declared it unconstitutional for authorities to continuing jailing illegal migrants for automatic three-year terms.

It’s Israel. The Jewish state has long struggled with immigrants from Africa who enter through Egypt. Many of those coming across the border are children, and a lot of them ended up in overcrowded detention centers in the desert without charges. The court ruling should end that practice.

Israeli society has struggled with the dilemma of migrants in political dialogues that might sound familiar to Americans. Many politicians and citizens worry about security. Much is made of the racial, religious and cultural differences of the newcomers. Some see erecting giant walls as the only solution.

And you might have thought America’s immigration problem was another thing that makes it exceptional.

As hope of accomplishing comprehensive immigration reform fades for this U.S. Congress, it is instructive to broaden the view. North America’s issues with immigration are not unique, not by a long shot. Throughout human history, large parts of the world’s population have been uprooted by wars, famines and natural disasters. Others have moved seeking better opportunities elsewhere.

The conditions that make migration possible, and in some cases necessary, are only accelerating. Demographic trends are diverging around the world, with the populations of many advanced nations aging and facing decline in the decades ahead, while other countries strain to accommodate burgeoning populations. Economic globalization has created a global labor market, in which skilled and unskilled workers in one country or region compete with those in others. Deindustrialization, brain drains and exploitation have intensified as a result. So has migration.

A series of papers by the Migration Policy Institute is trying to enlighten policy makers on the evolving nature of population migration. They were published in advance of a meeting of the United Nations High-Level Dialogue on Migration and Development next month. It’s an effort to align immigration policies globally in ways that will benefit nations economically while not exacerbating conflict, suffering and threats to security.

Begin by understanding that the global population has increased a remarkable fivefold in the last 100 years to 7.2 billion people. The number is expected to grow until about 2050 when it will plateau at under 10 billion.

The problem is that all those people are not distributed in ways that match commerce and labor needs. Currently, more than 230 million of the world’s population are immigrants.

Rainer Munz, a senior fellow at the Hamburg Institute of International Economics, explains that many of the world’s wealthiest nations, Europe and North America in particular, have aging populations. They also have declining birthrates, which will eventually result in not enough people of working age to maintain economic growth. Meanwhile, population growth will continue in South Asia, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.

Doing the math, demographers can see trouble ahead, with some nations being more dependent on migrant labor at the same time they are bearing the costs of an older population.

One answer suggested by Munz is for the countries that receive immigrants to begin developing smarter policies for migration, integration and nondiscrimination. He also advocates “crafting migration policies at bilateral or regional levels should become a standard approach. In this context, countries should view migration policy not only as a tool to bridge labor market gaps, but also as tool of global development.”

Governments all over the world need to think more broadly about immigration, understanding current and future global trends that will influence who arrives in their countries. It’s fruitless to pretend that global migration can be halted; a much more prudent approach is to figure out how it can be managed to avoid conflict and disruption.

The Israeli Supreme Court, in reaching its 9-0 decision on the jailing of African migrants, used language that should be the guiding ethical principle for all the world’s migration challenges: “We can’t negate basic and fundamental rights” while “solving a problem that requires an appropriate diplomatic and systematic solution.”

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