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Europe and America Debate Immigration
Muzaffar Chishti, Director of the Migration Policy Institute at NYU Law School
La Pietra Dialogues
June 6, 2009

The relevance of cross-Atlantic dialogue on policies affecting immigration and immigrants has never been more evident as it is today. Policy makers at various levels, academics and analysts, social service providers and corporate leaders are coordinating more closely in subjects which, until recently, were considered an exclusive domain of sovereign governments. The exchange of ideas and best practices cover a variety of areas in immigration policy and practice: from preventing acts of terrorism to expanding legal migration channels across skills, to more effective integration of newcomers in host societies. There is also a growing awareness that actions of a government on one side of the Atlantic have implications for the other.

A number of factors are responsible for this convergence of interests. North America and Western Europe are both confronting the demographic reality of an aging population: low birth rates and the retirement of native workers born during the baby boom are having their full impact. The economic growth and competitiveness of both Western Europe and North America will depend on attracting talent from other parts of the world. At the same time, demand for various service sector jobs--all kinds of health services and elderly services-- will continue to grow, while the least desirable and many seasonal jobs will continue to be shunned by many native workers. An immigration selection system that doesn’t acknowledge these central economic realities and matches pragmatic need with policy will be a failure.

North America and Western Europe both face great challenges in achieving cultural, economic, social and political incorporation of the new immigrant groups. The task of acquiring language and workplace skills to enter the labor market, of educating the second generation, of providing adequate health care, of encouraging civic and political participation can be both costly and controversial. The nations across the Atlantic must also balance the need for a national cohesion and unity with the benefits of diversity, fresh ideas and energies that individual immigrants and groups bring with them.

Finally, in both Western Europe and North America, the locus of policy making is no longer exclusively the federal or the central governments. Many states, cities and towns –especially those that have experienced rapid demographic changes—are increasingly asserting a role in regulating policies affecting immigrant populations in their jurisdictions. This desire to assert a policy role is complicated by the fact that the localities are responsible and bear the fiscal costs of providing some of the most basic services: schooling, health care, an effective criminal justice system.

Thus on both sides of the Atlantic, it is increasingly clear that most successful immigration policies are those that are designed in conjunction with other policies—policies that shape our labor markets, our education system, our work-force development and social welfare.

The Transatlantic Dialogue on Migration hosted by La Pietra Policy Dialogues provided an important venue to discuss many of these themes among European and American experts. Since I was already familiar with the brilliant work of my U.S. colleagues at the conference, I will limit my comments to the presentations of our European colleagues.

It is always refreshing to hear fact-based and honest insights. I was intrigued by Maurizio Ambrosini’s analysis of how Italy’s repeated legalization programs were implemented to acknowledge-- after the fact-- the large but unregulated immigrant populations. Equally insightful was Alessandro Simoni’s analysis of the schism between the letter of the law and the reality of its enforcement—and its implications for the political discourse on immigration in Italy. Most importantly, I was delighted by the attention given at the conference to the issues of education of immigrant origin youth. The accommodation given to the multicultural background of immigrant children in the town of Reggio Emilia was a very interesting case study. The presentation of the study by Maurice Crul and his col¬leagues on the educational success. of second generation immigrants across Europe was a highlight. The remarkable differences in educational achievements across various European countries was a sharp reminder of how early education policies can truly determine outcomes.

What made this conference special was the presence of students. It was especially refreshing to see U.S. students explore questions on U.S. policy issues through the prism of their European experiences. And you could see how the “dialogue” is affecting their thinking.

Like in many conferences, there was a pleasant surprise. I attribute this surprise to the allure of Florence. In the middle of the conference deliberations, I realized that a U.S. immigration judge based in San Francisco was in the audience. An immigration judge in the U.S. not only has powerful adjudicative authority, but has a unique vantage position to hear the stories of immigrants in their most vulnerable state, and to witness how the letter of the law matches the reality of their lives. To hear her reaction to the conference presentations informed by her experience on the bench was reassuring.

 
 
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