Migration is a reality that concerns no more than 200 million people on earth now living outside their country of origin—that is, only three percent of the world’s population.  Why should we even talk about it?  The reason is simple: Global statistics are worthless; the whole phenomenon is concentrated in Europe and the United States.  One could argue that, at least in modern times, the story of immigration has always been a transatlantic or Western tale, but while it was once an internal affair, it is now between the West and the rest of the world.

Throughout the golden age of borders—roughly from the Franco-Prussian war to the end of the Cold War—some nations produced a surplus labor force, and others were relatively eager to welcome it, but the rules were such that the world was full of fences and boundaries that worked quite well.  During the Cold War, communist regimes did everything possible to keep their citizens from leaving.  While in theory the “free world” was ready to grant political asylum to all who could escape communism, in reality governments were rather happy to be dealing with only thousands of cases per year.

From the dawn of independence, intellectuals began to ponder what it meant to be an American.  “Here individuals of all races are melted into a new race of man, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.  Americans are the western pilgrims” (“What Is an American?,” Letters From an American Farmer, 1782).

Immigration is so much linked to American history that it was an historian, Oscar Handlin, who pioneered the field of immigration studies in The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People (1951).  He set out to write “a history of the immigrants in America,” only to discover that “the immigrants were American history.”

It is very important not to lose sight of this American context when we talk about immigration.  In truth, the fact that the most successful society in human history was built by “migrants” has helped to construct an interpretive paradigm that appears to be imperishable: “The immigrant is an asset.”  An immigrant is a cheap commodity that costs nothing and produces a great deal.  He does not need to be nourished and educated for years and years, but comes to the country ready to work.  After 1865, in just a few decades, America became richer than Europe, and this must be interpreted to mean that the exchange profited the receiving country while impoverishing the “donor.”

The size of the flow of immigrants to Europe and the United States in the last few decades caught many observers by surprise.  The usual business of the social scientist is to tone down the phenomenon, but in Europe, this is a rather difficult task.  In less than 30 years, the foreign-born population in all major European countries went from close to zero to something between 10 and 20 percent.  Following the collapse of the communist regimes—which, paradoxically, had been a great conservative force, at least for the rest of the world—some amazing demographic trends, coupled with epochal political changes, have been shaking the nations, as well as the Old Continent.

As has always been the case, populations will try to escape wars, hunger, and repression.  But these days, boundaries are permeable: When political classes open their borders on one side, their counterparts are not able to close them on the other.  The world appears to be made of connecting vessels, and most politicians, when they are in power, present this as a necessity, and then, when they are out of power, promise to tackle the problem.

Many authors take the influx of a non-Christian population as the most important feature of today’s immigration into Europe.  Muslims pose problems in terms of “integration” that only the Catholic hierarchy is at liberty to ignore.  In this respect, the tale of what has been happening to Europe in recent years is a very peculiar chapter in the long history of “us and the others.”  It is an account that is usually obscured by conflicting narratives, white guilt, and various kinds of self-flagellation.

At any rate, Europe is now meeting the “other” at home for the very first time.  Previously, this had mostly been a one-way experience, and at times not too pleasant.  Arnold Toynbee wrote in 1954,

In the encounter between the world and the West that has been going on for four or five hundred years, the world, not the West, is the party that, up to now, has had the significant experience.  It has not been the West that has been hit by the world; it is the world that has been hit—and hit hard—by the West.

This new encounter is happening at a rather bad time in European history.  After centuries of ascent, European civilization is in hasty retreat.  The general wasting away of the West—which has been only partially counterbalanced by the unassailable position of the United States as a world leader—began several decades ago and coincided with the Muslim world’s awakening.  While the West stood hypnotized by protests in Berkeley and riots in Paris, wavering between Students for a Democratic Society and more orthodox Marxist groups, between the old and new anticapitalism, and pondering critiques of technology and “Soviet power plus electrification,” the Islamic world emerged from a long period of absolute subordination and lethargy.

For centuries, the European side of the Mediterranean was vastly more populated than the African side, but today the opposite is true.  Demographic changes are often the predecessors of historical turmoil.

The social aspects of contemporary migrations are numerous, but from a purely political perspective there is one endemic and overarching concern: All countries that are accepting immigrants already put up with extensive redistribution and unparalleled rates of taxation that require constant government intervention in the market.  Known previously for its commitment to the “free market” in contrast to communism, the former Western bloc—an immense community of industrial democracies stretching from Anchorage to Trieste—is now burdened with the heaviest, most intrusive, and most expensive public sectors ever constructed.  The gigantic, unmanageable governments that emerged in the postwar era (pompously called welfare states) are the problem.

Quite simply, there is now such a contradiction between welfare policies and state “hospitality” programs that the whole problem becomes just another battle in the ongoing war between government and the market.

The notion that open borders are a mortal threat to the welfare state seems so obvious that I thought the thesis had no specific origin besides common sense.  This, however, is not the case: Almost 30 years ago, Gary Freeman wrote an article entitled “Migration and the Political Economy of the Welfare State,” in which he argued that welfare is a closed system, and to open it is to destroy it.  Open borders are bound to erode any consensus about the system held by the “natives,” as they foment an ongoing conflict over social benefits.  The resentment of the working class for immigrants would become good news for radical right-wing parties ready to exploit the racial resentment of the populace.  “The introduction of racial and ethnic cleavages in Europe” is bringing about “the Americanization of European welfare politics,” writes Freeman. 

Today, Italy has perhaps the highest rates of taxation and public spending in recorded history, so it should go without saying that the influx of very poor people is bound to affect the pockets of taxpayers.  A century ago, European immigration to America caused all sorts of social problems, but the native population did not see a part of its income disappear because of the newcomers.  The immigrants were looking after themselves and producing income as soon as they got off the boat.  Today’s immigration to Italy causes social tension because Italian workers are paying for it.  The arrival of immigrants—tragic in itself, with thousands of deaths on the high seas, and rescues by the Italian coast guard—generates costs that are not only social but economic.

One of the immediate results of the unification of Italy in 1861 was the beginning of mass emigration.  It only took a few years for farmers to begin leaving the land for good, not only in the poor regions of the South but also in Veneto.  In 1913, out of a total population of 37 million, a staggering 870,000 Italian subjects abandoned the country, and almost half of those (mostly Southerners) reached the United States.

Eighty years later (in the summer of 1990) Italians witnessed the first wave of immigrants from Albania.  Many of the natives were flattered: Italy had become a land of opportunity!  Since then the influx has increased summer after summer, and in less than a quarter-century the grand total of foreign citizens living legally in Italy went from negligible to more than five million (8.5 percent of the total population).  The number of undocumented aliens is, of course, unknown, but the difference between legal and illegal is largely academic, as deportations are too complex to be carried out.

For almost two years, the current invasion by sea was purely an Italian problem, as the other European countries simply closed their borders to the immigrants whom Italy was “accommodating.”  However, following the widely reported tragedies involving migrant deaths in early September, Germany—the E.U. country that already harbors the largest percentage of foreigners—has opened her borders to Syrian refugees.

E.U. countries still differ very much in their immigration policies.  The idea that once you put a foot on European soil you can automatically come and go as you please proved to be a delusion for the hundreds of thousands of Africans who picked Italy as a starting point for their First World dream.  Instead, they are being sent back to Italy whenever they try to migrate further.  The message is loud and clear: European borders are nonexistent only for E.U. nationals.

In Italy, two views on immigration capture the entire political debate.  A large ruling group is absolutely convinced, for ethical reasons, or out of convenience, that Italy has to accommodate all those who undergo the risks of traveling by sea, land, or air.  In short, this means limitless immigration.  With a few different shades of gray, this is the position of the Holy See, the extreme left, and the government of Matteo Renzi.  The other view—probably shared by a majority of the population—thinks it is possible to lock down the entire country, with its 5,000 miles of coastline, and make it watertight against immigrants.

The two visions have their champions.  On one side is Laura Boldrini, president of the Camera dei Deputati (the lower house of the Italian parliament) and former spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees; and on the other is Matteo Salvini, the federal secretary of the Lega Nord and a member of the European Parliament.  The Lega was formed to promote the interests of the productive regions of Northern Italy and to protect that region from redistributionist parasitism, but after 20 years of the party delivering only promises, Salvini assumed leadership of the Lega and began to transform it into a nationalist, anti-immigration, right-wing party.  By merely exploiting resentment against immigrants and gypsies, the party went from 3 percent to almost 20 percent in the polls in less than two years.

By focusing the Lega solely on immigration, Salvini quickly showed that the statist right is much better equipped than the “globalist” left to exploit immigration.  The price the Lega had to pay was meager: It had to shed its regional identity and become a national party.

Now that the party has abandoned its regional platform and the nationally divisive questions that went with it, the press is cutting some slack to the leaders, some of whom are known to use racist, macho, and homophobic language.  As long as you participate in the cover-up of the “unequal” territorial distribution of taxpayers and tax-consumers, you are free to abandon political correctness in Italy.

Salvini’s remarkable success is not difficult to understand.  The recession of 2009 is still going on in Italy.  The country lost nearly 15 years of economic growth, and very optimistic economists predict that it will regain the GDP of 2007 only in the mid 2020’s.  In the midst of Italy’s worst economic crisis since the ill-fated political unification of 1861, anti-immigrant sentiment is at an all-time high.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the left’s stand on immigration is rather inconsistent: While promoting open borders, they fail to recognize that this is destroying their much-beloved welfare state.  As Freeman argued, in order to enforce and maintain a high level of taxpayer-funded government largesse, the system presupposes secure borders that clearly define who is a citizen, who is not, who is entitled to other people’s money, and who cannot reach others’ wallets through legislation.

Moreover, government spending in Italy (as everywhere) is at an all-time high.  If the residents must allocate a portion of their taxes to migrants, it is clear that some poor Italians will suffer.  It seems unrealistic to ask a handful of Italy’s wealth producers to fight against both domestic poverty and the hardships of the entire world.  A country exhausted by seven years of economic crisis will take mass immigration less than kindly, as was the case during this hot summer, when we witnessed the first episodes of riots of natives against the newcomers.

In Italy, as in all of the welfare states, hyperstatism is taken for granted.  It is no wonder that these societies are finding it impossible to untie the Gordian knot of immigration.