In our polarized world, discussions about complex topics are often reduced to simplistic arguments based on ideology. And in the list of issues that seem impervious to rational analysis and discussion, immigration policy is surely near the top.
In “How Migration Really Works: The Facts About the Most Divisive Issue in Politics,” Dutch sociologist Hein de Haas identifies 22 common “myths” about migration and subjects these myths to a clear and evenhanded analysis. Drawing on global data, he finds that almost all the arguments – made by both sides – represent “partial, simplistic, and often outright misleading views … which crumble in the face of evidence.” The book is an impressive, authoritative achievement on an issue about which it’s difficult to even agree on the questions that ought to be asked.
De Haas debunks the idea that migration is at an all-time high, and concludes that “current levels of migration are neither exceptionally high nor increasing. In fact, over the past decades, global migration levels have remained remarkably stable.” But what about illegal immigration? He argues that, according to the evidence, these numbers are also “relatively stable.” Even in the United States – which experienced “a fast increase between 1990 and 2005” – the total number of unauthorized immigrants in the country has hovered around 11 million for the last 20 years.
What about the claim that the world is facing unprecedented refugee and asylum crises? Again, not true, according to de Haas. While “Western societies have experienced levels of immigration and settlement that are higher than most expected a few decades ago,” most of the increase is due to legal immigration, “largely driven by labour demand.” He does not minimize or trivialize the problems that sudden surges of refugees create, but argues that “there is no scientific basis for the claim that … asylum systems are on the verge of collapsing.”
What about the notion that tighter border restrictions reduce immigration? This seems like a no-brainer: If we build more walls, fewer people will be able to cross borders. But, says de Haas, “this is not how migration works in reality,” and such efforts are counterproductive. In response to new restrictions, migrants find “legal loopholes, adjusting the timing of their migration or deploying new ways of crossing borders.” More importantly, efforts to further block migration “can paradoxically produce an increase in net migration, and push temporary migrants into long-term settlement.”
De Haas has a scholar’s comfort level with migration as a long-standing human activity and makes clear that he sees migration “not as a problem to be solved, or as a solution to problems, but as an intrinsic part of broader processes of social, cultural and economic change that affect our societies.” But he is no starry-eyed idealist. He frequently criticizes liberal organizations like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for “alarmist overtones,” and takes issue with the trope that conservatives are tougher on immigration than liberals.
If anyone is to blame, in de Haas’ view, it is politicians on the left and right who consistently ignore available evidence about the trends, causes, and impacts of migration. In his words, “This does not reflect a lack of information or innocence, but a conscious refusal to acknowledge the facts. Politicians … perpetuate a series of myths as part of deliberate strategies to distort the truth about migration.” But in doing so, they sow fear and misinformation and cover up their failures to address the problems.
De Haas presents the evidence clearly and effectively. An open-minded reader will find a fresh perspective on the nature of the immigration challenges on every page of this timely book. It ought to be required reading for politicians. A skeptic might despair that this careful, evenhanded analysis will make no appreciable difference in the debate over immigration. But de Haas hopes that a wider understanding of the issues will lead voters to demand more informed and thoughtful public policies.