The Strange Case of Modern Immigration

Victor Davis Hanson, National Review, April 28, 2015

Is immigrating from less-developed countries to the West a good or a bad thing, for host and guest? Is the immigrant angry at, or nostalgic for, the country he left? Is he thankful to or resentful of the country he has come to? Does the Westerner know why the other seeks him out or why he himself chooses not to emigrate to the non-West? These questions and dozens like them are not so much never answered as never even asked. The result is chaos. Thousands of refugees from the mess in North and East Africa are hiring smugglers to ship them across the Mediterranean into the southern ports of Europe–often with tragic results, as boats sink and passengers drown. Any visitor to Athens quickly notices that tens of thousands of Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Albanians have arrived illegally in Greece in hopes of reaching more prosperous Western European countries. In fact, the downtown of almost any European city is full of impoverished non-Western immigrants. Yet in ten years, some of those same Middle Eastern immigrants will demand space for new mosques, while they would never have allowed a church to be built in their homeland, and many newcomers will have complaints against their hosts about their own lack of parity with the established citizenry. Such is the strange effect of contemporary Westernism upon immigrants.

The failed Arab Spring, the Balkan unrest, and the Islamic wars in the Middle East have created a sort of chaos in which millions of people have no desire to stay home and face violence and death. What the non-Westerners see on cable television and the Internet are scenes of a carefree, wealthy West where things seem to work in a way they do not at home–and without any editorializing on why that is so. In other areas, recent war and revolution are just the latest chapters in an old book of endemic poverty, high birthrates, and failed governments that incite their poor to seek entrance by any means necessary into Europe. The migrants’ assumption is that being a poor visitor inside Europe is preferable to what they had at home. Someone with a menial job in Paris or on public assistance in the United Kingdom feels lucky because of what he knows housing, medical care, public safety, and nutrition are reduced to in India, Pakistan, Libya, the Philippines, or Syria. The most zealous Muslim often chooses to live among Christians, agnostics, and atheists rather than under an Islamic theocracy at home–even as he sometimes damns his host and praises the country he will never return to.

Something similar is snowballing on the southern border of the United States. Illegal immigration from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America has been a challenge for the United States for over a half-century. Many of the symptoms are similar to Europe’s experience with unlawful immigration–as we saw last summer, with busloads of children heading northward across the border. Government has abjectly failed in Latin America. These governments are at most indifferent to their people’s departure, and often encourage them to leave. {snip}


Under Western democratic government, the demand for social services for recent indigent arrivals alters political realities. Tired parties of the Left, especially in Britain and the United States, find new political opportunities in allowing in huge influxes of poor non-Westerners, whether legally or illegally. Demands for near-instant parity energize ossified calls for larger government, higher taxes, and more regulation–always a good thing for a leftist redistributionist.

Given the role of high tech and massive government aid in redefining Western poverty, the endless argument for ever more massive expansions of social services becomes more difficult without new populations of desperate Asian, African, and Latin American poor. Indigent immigrants ensure statistical imbalances and lead to charges of Western failures in fairness and equality. {snip}


But something apart from its mostly illegal nature is disturbing and new about immigration to the West today–largely ideology, and attitudes about assimilation and integration. Western societies have altered their traditional strength of introspection and self-criticism into a banal sort of nihilistic self-hatred. The richer and more leisured Western societies have become, the less confident they are about the values and history of their own culture, which has so blessed them. Only the bounties of capitalism allow one the leeway to damn it. The schizophrenia has reached such an absurd level that Americans are unable or unwilling to recognize why they do not wish to live in Mexico, or why millions of Mexicans wish to live in their country, and the British do not recognize why they do not emigrate to Pakistan, while millions of Pakistanis wish to live in Britain.

Westerners accept that these one-way correspondences are true. Nonetheless, they are incapable of articulating the social, economic, and political causes for the imbalances, namely the singular customs and heritage that make the West attractive: free-market capitalism, property rights, consensual government, human rights, freedom of expression and religion, separation of church and state, and a secular tradition of rational inquiry. Much less are they able to remind immigrants from the non-West that they are taking the drastic step of forsaking their homelands, often rich in natural resources, because of endemic statism and corruption, the lack of the rule of law, religious intolerance, misogyny, tribalism, and racism–the stuff that does not lead to prosperous, safe, and happy lives.


Immigration to the West will remain a moral and intellectual embarrassment until Westerners insist that newcomers arrive in numbers that can be assimilated, that they meet meritocratic criteria that are ethnically blind, and that they come legally and on the terms adjudicated by the host. Europeans and Americans need not be chauvinistic, but they do need to be candid about why people leave one country for another. From such knowledge comes realization that the best way to stop mass, illegal immigration is for other societies to emulate Western paradigms so that there is no need to emigrate–after all, Japanese and Singaporeans do not hide in cargo boats to reach California. But to do all that, Westerners need first to understand their own culture and then to defend it. Europeans and Americans need not think that the West must be perfect to be good. And they should recognize that millions in the non-West increasingly are certain that the West is far better than their own alternatives–even if they are as unsure why that is so as they are careful to keep quiet about it.

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