Thursday, August 28, 2014

In defense of immigration

Christopher Lenton

This year, tens of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America have flooded across the Mexico border into the US seeking to take advantage of a loophole in immigration law that ensures a lengthy deportation process, and perhaps a chance at legal status.

The desperate images of children squeezed into detention centers, and the stories of parents paying exorbitant fees to mules to smuggle their left-behind kin into the country, has once again put immigration at the center of policy debate, and news headlines, in the US.

It's a shame that the face of migration is this, because the fact is, the most successful economies in the world today are immigrant economies. According to the United Nations, about 11% of the population in the "more developed nations" is foreign-born, about 10 times greater than the figure in the "less developed nations."
In the US, about 15% of the population is foreign-born (not including the estimated 11mn undocumented residents), while in places like Australia, Canada and New Zealand, the figure is over 20%.

In Latin America, Chile has seen immigration rise remarkably over the past decade. Today, there are close to half a million foreign legal residents, or about 2.7% of the population. While this figure is still comparatively small, it is a considerable jump compared to 2000, when about 1% of the population was foreign-born, and easily ranks the country among the fastest growing immigrant populations in the world.

Though Argentina has seen immigration to its shores drop since 2000, the country – despite its well-documented woes – is home to 1.9mn foreign-born residents, or about 4.5% of the total population. Ecuador too has seen immigration rise over the last decade to now account for some 2% of the population.

Hernán Felipe Errázuriz and Álvaro Bellolio, the authors of a new book called "Migraciones en Chile: Oportunidad ignorada" (Migrations in Chile: An ignored opportunity), argue that a country like Chile needs to do yet more to lure migrants.

"The migrant already has certain advantages for the simple fact that migrating is a learning experience on its own. And he arrives with knowledge, schooling and other advantages that are positive for Chile," Bellolio said in a recent interview.

Today, the airplane, internet and pacts such as the Pacific Alliance make immigration far simpler than it once was in Latin America, and yet regulation, and the attitude towards immigration – the authors argue – remain of a different era. Programs such as Start-Up Chile are an example of an effective way to lure talent from abroad, but more must be done to bring in the best and brightest, and to highlight the boons of migration, especially in light of the recent economic slowdown and an aging workforce.

Immigration is a sign of a country's wealth, but it is also, historically and today, a spur to its wealth. Indeed, the entire story of the Americas is one of migration, of ambitious individuals seeking new horizons and building vibrant communities far from their birthplaces. Immigration, then, must be celebrated, not emblemized by the sad events unfolding on the US-Mexico border.

August 26, 2014

BN Americas