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Kevin ClarkeJune 13, 2024
Sea-Watch crew members help a migrant boarding a rescue boat in the Mediterranean Sea on July 23, 2022. African bishops are expressing pain at seeing young people migrate to lives of uncertainty. (CNS photo/Nora Bording, Sea-Watch handout via Reuters)Sea-Watch crew members help a migrant boarding a rescue boat in the Mediterranean Sea on July 23, 2022. African bishops are expressing pain at seeing young people migrate to lives of uncertainty. (CNS photo/Nora Bording, Sea-Watch handout via Reuters)

The Weekly Dispatch takes a deep dive into breaking events and issues of significance around our world and our nation today, providing the background readers need to make better sense of the headlines speeding past us each week. For more news and analysis from around the world, visit Dispatches.

The final results of the European Union’s parliamentary elections were still being tabulated on June 13, but the far-right Identity and Democracy Group of political parties had their best showing ever, even as centrist parties appear to have been able to hold on to the majority.

Far-right parties, once on the political fringes but now moving to the European mainstream, collectively won an unprecedented 131 out of 720 seats in the upcoming parliament. The strong showing of nationalist parties suggests a step back from European unity, one that worries many supporters of a strong European community, particularly as the European Union squares off against the imperialist ambitions of the Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin.

One of the top-of-mind issues among European voters was the ongoing immigration crisis, much as the issue has come to the forefront in the United States as former President Donald Trump and President Biden prepare for their rematch in November.

The handling and assimilation of immigrants in E.U. states like France, Germany and the former community member United Kingdom has long been a neuralgic issue. But dealing with immigration became a continent-wide dilemma in the aftermath of the 2015 immigration crisis. The reverberations of that crisis are still playing out even as the numbers of migrating people irregularly crossing into Europe has substantially declined.

Europe’s immigration crisis began when the number of irregular entries spiked from 107,000 in 2013 to 1.8 million in 2015, as refugees and asylum seekers fled conflict and persecution primarily in Syria and Afghanistan. Those numbers had already declined sharply by 2016 to 511,000 and dropped even closer to pre-2015 levels in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic. That year, European states experienced a little over 126,000 irregular border crossings. Since then, however, the numbers have been creeping higher, though they remain far below the 2015 spike. A little over 385,000 irregular crossings were detected in 2023.

With those numbers reduced, why have internal tensions over immigration persisted—even to the extent of encouraging a return to hard-right identity politics that are sorrowfully well-known in Europe? The answer could be that while irregular border crossings declined, the number of migrants coming into Europe through legal pathways significantly increased: from 1.6 million in 2013 to 3.5 million by 2022, an increase partly attributable to the broad acceptance of refugees from Ukraine after Russian Federation troops stormed across its borders that year.

Migration forecasts for the near term suggest that displacement because of conflict and climate change will continue to drive significant numbers of people from their home countries around the world. The U.N. International Organization for Migration reports that more than 281 million people were on the move in 2022, 3.6 percent of the world’s population.

Managing migration will continue to be a challenge for Europe as numbers fleeing unrest and eco-disruption in sub-Saharan Africa and Africa’s Sahel region trend higher. And it will remain a challenge for the United States, the nation with the world’s highest total of foreign-born residents with more than 51 million.

Migrant encounters indicate that people from all over the world are heading to the southern border to seek a U.S. entry. Last year a record 2.5 million encounters were recorded by the U.S. Border Patrol. For the first time the majority of migrants—51 percent—were collectively from nations other than Mexico and the Central American states that have been the primary source of immigration into the United States.

As in Europe, immigration remains a political flashpoint in the United States even as numbers of migrant encounters with Border Patrol stabilized then declined in recent months. In May, the number of border encounters was down 54 percent from record highs experienced in December, but one would not know that considering how aggressively—and loudly—the Biden administration has pursued border security in recent weeks.

Stung perhaps by how well the issue has been playing in an election year, the Biden administration has stepped up various efforts via executive order or bureaucratic fiat to tamp down border crossings even as data suggests fewer migrants are reaching the U.S.-Mexico border in recent months. In fact the annual spring spike in migrant encounters appears to have been dodged altogether in 2024.

Despite the declining real numbers of irregular crossings, public perception of immigration is driving the political and bureaucratic agenda. That may be because, regardless of the numbers of irregular migrant entries, both the United States and the European Union are experiencing a period when double-digit percentages of foreign-born people have been able to achieve legal residency.

In 1990, Sweden had a foreign-born population share of 9 percent. That had increased to 20 percent by 2020. Germany’s foreign-born residents increased from 8 percent in 1990 to 19 percent in 2020. Spain saw its foreign-born population rise from just 2 percent in 1990 to 15 percent by 2020. In the United States, the percentage of foreign-born during that time frame leaped from 9 to 15 percent.

Those escalating percentages might at least partly account for the electoral backlash against immigration in the E.U. elections. In the United States, the return to double-digit percentages represents a restoration to levels that were typical between 1860 and 1938. That year, foreign-born percentages began a decline to a historic low of 4.7 percent by 1970. The percentage has been on the rise ever since, reaching 15.6 percent in March 2024, partially propelled by the fastest ever two-year rise in U.S. immigrant numbers—5.1 million between 2022 and 2024.

Has that time frame proved too jarringly short for some native-born Americans? We’ll know more in November.

Under Pope Francis, the Catholic Church has been a vocal defender of the human dignity of migrating people throughout this period of political and ecological upheaval. The church indeed teaches that nations have the right and the responsibility to manage their borders with an eye to the common good, but the church also supports the right of migration to escape material deprivation, oppression and war. Pope Francis has said that nations with the economic capacity to do so have a moral obligation to accept migrating people.

Pope Francis has often worried of a third world war conducted piecemeal that is helping to propel migration and has warned against the “globalization of indifference,” particularly regarding the dignity and suffering of migrating people. He has often spoken of the European community’s obligation to intervene to prevent the ongoing loss of life on the Mediterranean Sea as migrants seek to reach Greece or Italy from North Africa. He warns that the Mediterranean has become a cemetery for migrants. It continues to be so.

In 2023, more than 3,100 migrants and refugees are known to have lost their lives or gone missing at sea while attempting to cross to Europe along the three Mediterranean routes (eastern, central and western Mediterranean), according to I.O.M.’s Missing Migrants Project. The true number of dead and missing along these routes is believed to be much higher as many incidents go unreported or undetected.

While the church issues a moral call to protect and support migrating people, Europe and U.S. policymakers may wish to keep in mind more practical outcomes of contemporary migration, that those higher percentages of foreign born people have been propping up the global economic order put in place by the West. They are also propping up domestic population figures.

It is worth remembering that the percentages of native v. foreign born are shifting for a number of reasons, not just rising immigration. Obscured by the percentage leaps of foreign-born are collapsing birth rates among the native-born across Europe and the United States.

Hungary has been among the most hostile European states to immigration, and the government of autocrat Victor Orban has invested substantially in efforts to restore a robust native-born fertility rate. But that effort has only been able to bump birth rates from 1.23 children per woman in 2011 to 1.55 in 2023, still well below the replacement rate of 2.1 (which the Hungarian government hopes to achieve by 2030). Hungary’s population has declined from a peak in 1980 of 10.7 million to 9.9 million today.

Hungary’s population was boosted substantially by Ukraine refugees in 2022, but its unwillingness to accept other immigrant groups and its continuing struggle to reverse declining fertility mean that Hungary is projected to lose almost a third of its population by the turn of the 21st century.

Managing the assimilation of a large foreign-born population will surely prove a difficult challenge for E.U. and U.S. policymakers. But an equally pressing challenge that comes to mind is managing a social security system for a rapidly aging native population without the support of a youthful workforce.

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