I am an immigrant — a legal one. Over a period of 16 years I’ve gone through a succession of work visas, acquired a green card, married an American citizen (herself an immigrant) and passed the citizenship test, and in just 18 days will take the naturalisation oath, accompanied by my wife and our two American-born sons.
Since 2002, I and members of my family have entered the US umpteen times. Occasionally those crossings have been fraught. Once, before she got her green card, my British-born daughter was held up by immigration officers, who doubted her story that she was visiting her father. Those were agonising hours.
So I can understand the great wave of moral outrage that swept the United States and the world last week over the separation of asylum-seeking parents from their children at the US-Mexican border.
I can sympathise, too, with the parents, most of whom are from poor and violent Central American countries. My wife was once an asylum seeker from a poor and violent country. Her main motive for leaving Somalia for Holland (via Kenya and Germany) was to avoid an arranged marriage to a man she scarcely knew. Knowing that this was not a sufficient reason to be granted asylum, she emphasised the civil war in her country. In the same way, whatever their true motives, today’s asylum seekers from Honduras and Guatemala know to talk about the violence they are fleeing. This has been easier since 2009, when the courts started accepting that victims of domestic violence were entitled to asylum.
To those of you contentedly living in the country where you were born, I address a plea for empathy and also realism. A world without cross-border migration would be a poorer world. A trivial example: this Scotsman would never have met a Dutch-speaking Somali, and their two delightful sons would not exist. Nor would we have paid all those taxes to the US Treasury.
So the question is not whether to stop migration but how to manage it. From those of you who regard any regulation of immigration as somehow unjust — who want illegal immigrants to be treated the same as those who follow the rules — I plead for rationality. Wholly open borders are not a sane option for any country. And comparing today’s US government to the Nazis — who persecuted native-born German Jews by depriving them of their citizenship, then their rights, then their property and finally their lives — is preposterous.
No, Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler, any more than Melania is Mussolini. Hitler was not the kind of leader who performed a U-turn after a week of bad press. Melania's coat, with its tone-deaf message (“I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?”), was a green parka, not a brown shirt. Last week a friend suggested to me that the Trumps were engaged in “vice signalling”, the antithesis of virtue signalling — meaning that the policy of splitting up families was intended to gratify Trump’s populist base. I don’t buy that.
“We’re going to have strong — very strong — borders, but we are going to keep the families together,” Mr Trump said as he made his U-turn. “I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated.
“The dilemma is that if you’re weak . . . really pathetically weak, the country’s going to be overrun with millions of people,” the president added. “And if you’re strong, then you don’t have any heart. That’s a tough dilemma. Perhaps I’d rather be strong.”
No, I can’t imagine the Führer saying any of that either, especially not the “perhaps”. This debacle, the political equivalent of Argentina’s World Cup campaign, is the result of folly more than evil.
Last week Vanity Fair published the claim of an anonymous “outside White House adviser” that Trump’s speech-writer and aide Stephen Miller “actually enjoys seeing those pictures at the border. He’s a twisted guy . . . He’s Waffen-SS.” I think this quotation tells us more about the standards of journalism at Vanity Fair than about Mr Miller, who is both conservative and Jewish. No one in American politics sits down and says: “Guys, I’ve just had a really awesome idea. Let’s put toddlers in cages!”
The problem of what exactly to do with asylum-seeking families predates Miller by about two decades. It was in 1997 that a consent decree was issued, known as the Flores settlement, which prohibits the US immigration authorities from keeping children in detention — even with their parents — for more than 20 days. As it takes up to 50 times longer to adjudicate asylum applications, the authorities either let the families go (most disappear into the invisible army of the undocumented) or they try to separate parents from children. The last time the issue surfaced, in 2014, the Obama administration threw in the towel. Just 3% of the tens of thousands of children from Central America who entered America via Mexico that year were ultimately deported. The Trump administration didn’t want to be such a pushover. It was nevertheless pushed over — not by the asylum seekers, but by the media.
The German leader Trump more closely resembles is thus not Adolf Hitler but Angela Merkel. She too was forced to cave in by the media in 2015, when her statement to a sobbing Palestinian girl that Germany “just can’t manage” to accommodate refugees from the Middle East triggered a storm of emotion. You may recall what happened in the months after Merkel’s U-turn. As I pointed out last week, European and American leaders confront essentially the same problem. I just wish the media would express the same outrage about the camps in Turkey and north Africa where Europeans are trying to confine their would-be immigrants. I remain to be convinced that families trying to enter the US are treated worse than those trying to enter the EU.
This is not an American problem. It is a global problem. According to a Gallup survey a year ago, more than 700m adults around the world would like to move permanently to another country. Of that vast number, more than a fifth (21%) say their first choice would be to move to the US. The proportion who name an EU country as their dream destination is higher: 23%.
As I said, they have my sympathy. I love Scotland, the country where I happened to be born, but it was not where I wanted to spend my life. What I didn’t do was jump on a boat with my kids and try to bluff my way into America, intending to stay there even if my asylum claim were rejected.
“An undocumented alien is not a criminal,” Senator Kamala Harris argued last year. Sorry, but that’s wrong, just as it’s wrong for local authorities to defy the federal government by establishing “sanctuary cities”, and wrong for judges to subvert the system for processing asylum claims by making the temporary detention of applicant families impossible.
America has a broken immigration policy and it cannot be fixed by presidential orders. The constitution clearly states that this is a job for Congress. That’s one of the things a newly minted American citizen learns. It’s the native-born journalists, with their addiction to hyperbole and bad history, who seem to have forgotten it.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
One hundred and 10 years ago the British author Israel Zangwill completed his play The Melting Pot. First staged in Washington in October 1908 — where it was enthusiastically applauded by President Theodore Roosevelt — it celebrates the United States as a giant crucible fusing together “Celt and Latin, Slav and Teuton, Greek and Syrian — black and yellow — Jew and Gentile” to form a single people.
“Yes,” declares the play’s hero (like Zangwill’s father, a Jewish immigrant from Russia), “East and West, and North and South, the palm and the pine, the pole and the equator, the crescent and the cross . . . Here shall they all unite to build the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God.”
It is rather hard to imagine a similar play being written about the European Union in the early 21st century. Or rather you could easily imagine a very different one. In it, the influx of migrants from all over the world would have precisely the opposite effect to the one envisioned by Zangwill. Far from leading to fusion, Europe’s migration crisis is leading to fission. The play might be called The Meltdown Pot.
Increasingly, I believe that the issue of migration will be seen by future historians as the fatal solvent of the EU. In their accounts Brexit will appear as merely an early symptom of the crisis. Their argument will be that a massive Völkerwanderung overwhelmed the project for European integration, exposing the weakness of the EU as an institution and driving voters back to national politics for solutions.
Let us begin with the scale of the influx. In 2016 alone an estimated 2.4m migrants came to the 28 EU member states from non-EU countries, taking the total foreign-born population of the union up to 36.9m, more than 7% of the total.
This may be just the beginning. According to the economists Gordon Hanson and Craig McIntosh, “the number of African-born first-generation migrants aged 15 to 64 outside sub-Saharan Africa [will] grow from 4.6m to 13.4m between 2010 and 2050”. The great majority of these will surely head to Europe.
The problem is intractable. Continental Europe’s population is ageing and shrinking, but European labour markets have a poor record when it comes to integrating unskilled migrants. Moreover, a large proportion of Europe’s immigrants are Muslims. Liberals insist that is should be possible for Christians and Muslims to coexist peacefully in a secular, post-Christian Europe. In practice the combination of historically rooted suspicions and modern divergences in attitudes — notably on the status and role of women — is making assimilation difficult. (Compare the situation of Moroccans in Belgium with that of Mexicans in California if you don’t believe me.)
Finally, there is a practical problem. Europe’s southern border is almost impossible to defend against flotillas of migrants, unless Europe’s leaders are prepared to let many people drown.
Politically, the migration problem looks likely to be fatal to that loose alliance between moderate social democrats and moderate conservatives/Christian democrats on which the past 70 years of European integration has been based.
European centrists are deeply confused about immigration. Many, especially on the centre-left, want to have both open borders and welfare states. But the evidence suggests that it is hard to be Denmark with a multicultural society. The lack of social solidarity makes high levels of taxation and redistribution unsustainable.
In Italy we see one possible future: the populists of the left (the Five Star Movement) and the populists of the right (the League) have joined forces to form a government. Their coalition is going to focus on two things: entrenching old welfare norms ( it plans to undo a recent pension reform) and excluding migrants. Last week, to much popular applause, the interior minister, Matteo Salvini, turned away a boat carrying 629 migrants rescued from the sea off Libya. The Aquarius is now en route to Spain, whose new minority Socialist government has offered to accept its human cargo.
Where else can the populists come to power? They are already in government in some way in six EU member states: Austria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Italy and Poland. But across the EU there are a total of 11 populist parties with popular support of 20% or more, implying that the number of populist governments could roughly double. It’s just that few countries can match Italy for political flexibility. Imagine, if you can, the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) sitting down with the German leftists (Die Linke) for sausages and beer in Berlin. Impossible. As a result, as Germans found after their last election, there is in fact no alternative but for the old grand coalition of centre-right and centre-left to limp onwards.
Limp is the word. Last week the chancellor, Angela Merkel, collided with Horst Seehofer, her interior minister, who wants to turn away from Germany’s borders any migrants already registered in other EU states. Under the EU’s Dublin regulation, the country where an immigrant first arrives is in theory responsible for his or her asylum application. But in practice migrants can shop around for the most favourable destination, thanks to the Schengen system of borderless travel that Germany belongs to.
In Merkel’s eyes, Germany cannot opt out of Schengen without risking the collapse of the entire system of free movement. Her hope is she can cobble together some kind of pan-European package on immigration at the EU summit in Brussels at the end of this month. But it is not yet clear that her Bavarian Christian Social Union coalition partner (which Seehofer leads) can go along with this. The CSU has state elections approaching in October and fears losses to the AfD precisely on the immigration issue. In any case, the chances of a coherent pan-European migration strategy seem remote. National borders look like a simpler solution.
I used to be sceptical of the argument that Brexit was about leaving a sinking ship. I am now reassessing my view. Even as the impossibility of reconciling Tory remainers and Brexiteers becomes an existential threat to Theresa May, events in Europe are moving in directions that seemed inconceivable just a few years ago.
In his upcoming book on US immigration, my brilliant friend Reihan Salam — himself the son of Bangladeshi immigrants — makes a bold argument: America must either restrict immigration or risk civil war as rising inequality and racial tension combine.
I hope Salam is right that the American melting pot can somehow be salvaged. But I have no such hope for Europe. No one who has spent any time in Germany since Merkel’s great gamble of 2015-16 can honestly believe that a melting pot is in the making there. Anyone who visits Italy today can see that the policies of the past decade — austerity plus open borders — have produced a political meltdown.
Fusion may still be an option for the United States. For Europe, I fear, the future is one of fission — a process potentially so explosive that it may relegate Brexit to the footnotes of future history.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
My uncle Ian enjoyed asking his younger brother, my late father, when that wastrel Niall would leave college and get a real job. The implication was that, by becoming an academic, I had essentially failed to grow up. I sometimes think Uncle Ian was right.
One of the attractions of university life to me was precisely that academic jobs were not like real jobs. At Oxford my tutors inhabited large, wood-panelled studies with towering bookcases and mullioned windows. They wore not suits but old tweed jackets with leather patches on the elbows.
For roughly half the year the dons had to put up with undergraduates knocking on their doors with hastily written essays to be discussed. During the vacations, however, they were free to do as they pleased, as long as they occasionally published books. I resolved to join these happy eggheads.
In those distant days of the 1980s academic historians came in different flavours. There were fierce Marxists. There were brilliant liberals. There were polemical radicals. And there were acerbic Tories. This was part of the joy of the Oxbridge experience. In Michaelmas term you boned up on the rising gentry and falling bourgeoisie. In Hilary term, having been sent to a conservative tutor, you learnt that this was all drivel.
On the whole I found the Tory dons more fun. We Oxford Thatcherites were, to be sure, a minority, but we had our mentors and they egged us on. A highlight of my time at Oxford was my election to the Canning Club, a conservative discussion group run by undergraduates but presided over by the Oriel College medievalist Jeremy Catto.
Fast-forward more than 30 years and I find myself at Stanford. My don’s life has not been exactly as I imagined it, but near enough. Books? Fifteen at the last count. Scruffy jackets? A wardrobe-ful. A level of freedom unknown in any other profession? No question.
But there is one huge difference that has crept up on me almost imperceptibly. Today scarcely any conservatives are to be found among academic historians. In American history departments, according to a 2016 study of 40 leading institutions, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a ratio of 33.5 to one. Compare this with the ratios for law (8.6:1) and economics (4.5:1). The ratios are higher if you exclude older faculty members, so the trend is clearly the progressives’ friend.
This helps explain why, shortly after taking up a post at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, I was approached by a succession of students. Some were self-professed conservatives, others registered Republicans, but most were libertarians, classical liberals or undecideds. Their common complaint was that the campus was dominated by progressives, and that it was hard even to get a conservative as an outside speaker. Their common goal was intellectual diversity.
Remembering Jeremy Catto, I offered encouragement. I suggested setting up a visiting speaker series dedicated to free speech. I opposed those who argued that only conservatives should be invited. As the president and provost also wished to promote free speech at Stanford, we joined forces. Seeking a bipartisan basis for the initiative, we brought in a Democrat colleague, Mike McFaul, and involved all the student publications, left and right-leaning alike. We organised five such “Cardinal Conversations”, ranging from technology and politics to populism and inequality.
There was (as I had expected) opposition from the outset. In particular, our invitation of Charles Murray provoked outrage from the campus left. Ever since the publication in 1994 of Murray’s book The Bell Curve
(co-authored with Richard Herrnstein), there has been controversy about their (brief) discussion of race as a factor in differences in IQ and their claim that socioeconomic outcomes reflect genetic and not just environmental influences. Yet the sheer scale of the discussion that Murray’s work has generated would seem to argue for its importance, regardless of whether one ends up agreeing with him.
The campus left took a different view. Eight student groups joined forces to write to the president, calling for Murray’s invitation to be rescinded. “Murray’s work is not an academic undertaking,” they wrote. “It is a foundation for white supremacy.” When the event nevertheless went ahead, they organised a noisy protest.
So far, so predictable — though I had never expected to hear students chant: “F*** Steve Bannon / F*** the western canon.” What I had not foreseen was that the protest leaders might attempt to take over the student steering committee we had established.
I had met representatives of the various aggrieved student groups. I had heard their charge that I was “weaponising free speech”. I had satisfied myself that their antipathy to Murray was not based on any reading of his work.
I had no objection to these groups’ views being heard, but began to fear they were seeking an effective veto over future events. The existing committee was not unrepresentative: only half its members were white, and half were women. By contrast, the groups represented by the “coalition of concerned students” seemed to constitute a rather small proportion of the overall student body. When I heard an emergency meeting had been called by their leader to change the structure of the committee, I decided to mobilise the college Republicans.
Now the emails we exchanged have been published, I stand condemned for my intemperate language. Fair enough. As soon as it became clear that these emails had been inadvertently forwarded to unintended recipients, I resigned from Cardinal Conversations.
Re-reading my emails now, I am struck by their juvenile, jocular tone. “A famous victory,” I wrote the morning after the Murray event. “Now we turn to the more subtle game of grinding them down on the committee. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” Then I added: “Some opposition research on Mr O might also be worthwhile” — a reference to the leader of the protests.
None of this happened. The meetings of the student committee were repeatedly postponed. No one ever did any digging on “Mr O”. The spring vacation arrived. The only thing that came of the emails was that their circulation led to my stepping down.
From all of this I draw two conclusions. First, it might have been avoided if conservatives at universities did not feel so beleaguered. There is a debate about whether free speech has been restricted on American campuses in recent years. I have no doubt it has. Middle-of-the-road students live in fear that a casual remark will be deemed “offensive” or “triggering” and that social media will be unleashed to shame them. Conservative students have to keep quiet or fight a culture war in which they are hopelessly outnumbered.
The other lesson I have learnt is that Uncle Ian was right: I do need to grow up. Student politics is best left to students. So I am putting my tweed jacket back on and retreating to my beloved study. It is time to write another book.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford