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For Immigrants, America Is Still More Welcoming Than Europe

8 Dec

The United States has some of the most hostile policies toward an immigrant population found in the developed world.

Start with the special police forces dedicated to persecuting and deporting over a quarter of the nation’s immigrants, the estimated 11 million who entered the country without authorization. Then there is the lack of 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 social fabric than foreigners arriving to the relatively coddled states of the European Union, where they often enjoy access right away to a panoply of rights and benefits?

The difference is worth pondering.

There is no question that citizens across the West are gripped by anxiety about immigration. It entwines a fear of imported terrorism with the older 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 find their identities 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 are substantially higher in the United States 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 that more immigrants buy into the American dream than do native-born Americans: 70 percent believe their children will be better off than themselves, up from 60 percent 20 years ago. Among American-born parents, only 50 percent believe that.

In fact, the children of the least-educated immigrants are much better educated than their parents. They find much better jobs.

“Current immigrants and their descendants are integrating into U.S. society,” the report concluded. “Integration increases over time, with immigrants becoming more like the native-born with more time in the country, and with the second and third generations becoming more like other native-born Americans than their parents were.”

Richard Alba and Nancy Foner, sociologists at the City University of New York, just published the book “Strangers No More,” (Princeton University Press). 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 better.

“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 European Union to get ahead in Europe.

Among the most notable is clearly 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 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 were unemployed, about double the rate of European Union citizens.

One in four of the economically active is out of work in France and one in three in Belgium and Sweden. And these poor employment prospects persist down the generations. Youth joblessness among the European-born children of immigrants is almost 50 percent higher than for those with native-born parents.

Employment is not the only barrier. Children from less-educated immigrant families are much less likely to succeed at school in Europe than the sons and daughters of natives, and much more likely to end up marginalized: out of school and out of work. Immigrants feel discriminated against more often in Europe. Perceived discrimination is particularly acute among the European-born children of immigrants, who in several countries still do not qualify for automatic citizenship.

As Professor Foner put it: “The United States does a better job at accepting immigrants as Americans in the making.”

To be sure, immigrants make up a smaller share of the population of the United States than they do of the populations of immigrant havens like Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Still, that share is considerably larger than that of ethnically distinct immigrants from outside the bloc who live in the European Union nations.

And yet, across most of Europe, voters want to limit immigration. Majorities in many European countries see immigrants as an economic burden and as people who refuse to assimilate. For all the hatred of immigrants stirred up by Mr. Trump and other Republican hopefuls, most Americans — 63 percent in 2014, according to the National Academies report — still believe immigration is a good thing. Majorities across the political spectrum favor granting illegal immigrants a path toward legal status.

The United States is a nation of hyphenated identities. Europe’s nation-states, deeply rooted in history, are not.

The most common criticism of this sort of analysis is that it misses the role of religion. Most immigrants in the United States are Christian. In Europe they are mostly Muslim. Europeans’ hostility is often justified by arguing that Islam is incompatible with values inherent to Europe’s liberal democracies.

Professors Foner and Alba suggest this incompatibility has perhaps less to do with Muslim intransigence than with the European insistence that immigrants adopt a narrow set of behaviors, including Christian traditions and, importantly, secular values.

In the United States, they write, “to be religious is to be in sync with mainstream norms.” Many Americans have more trouble accepting atheists than Muslims. In Europe, by contrast, “claims based on religion have much less acceptance and legitimacy.”

In June, President Obama hosted a Ramadan Iftar meal at the White House. In France, public schools still serve fish on Fridays. In some schools, the choice for Muslim children is pork or nothing.

“Muslims feel they have a secondary status in these societies,” Ms. Foner told me.

The American approach to immigration, of course, could improve enormously. Ending the active persecution and deportation of 11 million living illegally in the United States would vastly improve not only their own odds of success, but those of their 4.5 million American-born children — citizens all — as well.

But in this moment in which bigotry and hatred flow so freely from the campaign stump, the most critical insight might be to understand the value of America’s traditionally more open and welcoming approach.

The anti-immigrant reaction to the terrorist attacks in Paris is already delivering electoral success to the xenophobic National Front in France. Mr. Trump has a substantial following, but he lacks a political party behind him and is a long way from gaining a similar victory.

And let’s hope it stays that way. Erecting walls would blunt one of the United States’ most powerful tools of social cohesion and economic progress. It would produce a society less able to accept, mold and succeed from the many immigrants in our midst.