Europeans Vote For America — With Their Feet
. . . an account of continued high levels of immigration from Europe to the U.S. and the reasons for it:
The American dream may be a musty old relic in the minds of some American elites, but for Annique Lambe—who arrived in the U.S. 12 years ago from Ireland—it is alive and well. Now a schoolteacher in Manhattan, she marvels at the energy and opportunity that she and other friends who are also recent immigrants from Europe have found on these shores. “New York is a huge place where something is always happening,” she says in a soft Irish lilt. “Now I am a part of it, living among the big towers and the skyline. It seems miraculous to me.”
From the seventeenth century on, waves of immigrants from the European continent played a primary role in forming America. It was not mainly the rich, powerful, or well-connected of Europe who came, but those of a more modest station. A simple working person in America had a far better chance of rising into the comfortable classes than his European counterpart, and his offspring’s chances were even greater yet. Most new arrivals to America eventually enjoyed a leap upward in quality of life and social mobility.
Yet even as the European masses headed to this side of the Atlantic for a better life, some intellectual and social elites insisted that Europe’s culture was better than anything found in the United States. As an intellectual, cultural, and artistic center, Europe was unsurpassed. That belief remains powerful today.
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New Yorkers have a perfect one-word response for such claims: fuggedaboutit. Europe may be a great place to visit, but U.S. emigration to the continent is paltry—while the reverse flow from Europe to the United States remains at consistently high levels even with the somewhat bothersome screenings imposed after 9/11. While Europeans are no longer the primary immigrants to the U.S. (that role having been taken over by Latin Americans and Asians), they remain an important factor in the continuing re-invention of America.
As in the past, immigrants from France, Italy, Germany and other parts of Europe continue to come to America to participate in an economy that is more dynamic, healthier, and generally more open than what they are leaving behind. America’s economic appeal has been broadened by Europe’s long-term competitive decline; its portion of world GDP dropped from 34 percent to 20 percent between 1913 and 1998, while the United States held its own at about 22 percent of global GDP (even amidst the Third World boom of the last generation).
Most recently, Europe’s position has weakened considerably. Since the 1970s, America has created some 57 million new jobs, compared to just 4 million in Europe (with most of those in government). For the last quarter century, the United States has enjoyed consistently higher rates of economic growth and productivity than European countries, and the gap has been widening. The United States is now at the forefront in many critical global industries, particularly finance, technology, and entertainment.
The future doesn’t look much brighter for the continent. Under current conditions, according to the European Central Bank, the Euro Zone’s overall growth potential is roughly half that of the United States. The wishful notion that the E.U. would overtake the United States as the world’s “most competitive, knowledge-based economy” by 2010, much discussed at the time of European unification, has now been dismissed, even by many Europeans themselves, as wildly over-optimistic.
Under such circumstances, the United States remains a tremendous lure for many Europeans, especially younger, educated individuals. This is particularly true in technological fields, where Europe’s best brains are leaving in droves. Some 400,000 E.U. science and technology graduates currently reside in the United States, and barely one in seven, according to a recent European Commission poll, intend to return. “The U.S. is a sponge that’s happy to soak up talent from across the globe,” observes one Irish scientist.
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Finally there is culture. Hollywood and the American music industry have long dominated European markets, despite massive government subsidies for the continent’s culture-based industries. More recently, even once-powerful European cultural industries such as fashion have become more influenced by American designers and ideas.
The European Squeeze
America’s superior per capita income, its leadership of critical global industries, and its higher quality of life are reflected in everything from housing space to consumer prices. This is all the more remarkable given that the country continues to absorb poor migrants from across the globe. America’s demographic vitality makes it nearly one of a kind among modern nations.
These demographic factors place Europeans at a disadvantage. Since much of the immigration to Europe comes from poorly educated (for the most part) workers from Africa and the Middle East, it has not appreciably increased the continent’s supply of skilled workers. There is also deep-seated hostility to the newcomers among natives; nearly a third of E.U. citizens describe themselves as decidedly “prejudiced” against the continent’s current immigrants. In addition, the powerful welfare state mechanisms in Europe tend to keep both newcomers and displaced native workers out of the workforce and on the dole, further exacerbating the pressures on the economy and the social resentments.
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All told, European immigration to the United States jumped by some 16 percent during the 1990s. Europe’s percentage of total immigrants to the U.S. rose crisply between 1998 and 2001. Visa applications dropped after 9/11, but then increased last year by 10 percent. The total number of European-born Americans increased by roughly 700,000 during the last three years, with a heavy inflow from the former Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia, Romania, and France.
Open Culture and Hot Economics
As [a European immigrant] would be quick to point out, an economy is driven, more than anything else, by the energies of people who can still dream. Although many American intellectuals and urbanites hold European cities in higher regard than our own, many young everyday Europeans have discovered that American metropolises are often more exciting, more liveable, and, most important of all, better places to find opportunities for upward mobility.
With this common draw of financial reward for astute work, U.S. cities are producing the kind of pan-European melting pot that is all too often only a dream on the European continent. “This is a place for Europeans, “ observes Michael Idov, an immigrant from Latvia who writes in both Russian and English. “Think of all the Brits in the publishing industry. In the art world, every other young person you meet is French or Italian. Most of the Russians are in computer science. It’s a kind of pan-European society.”
The Dream Endures
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“I love the business culture in New York,” says Volker Detering, a former Green Party activist from Germany who came to New York in 1999. Along with his brother Dietmar, he has founded a thriving Web site business specializing in event planning and networking—something that would be exceedingly difficult to establish and grow in heavily regulated Germany.
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Beneath the European hostility toward America stirred up by 9/11 and the Afghan and Iraq wars, a much deeper verdict on the United States is being rendered by hundreds of thousands of individual Europeans. These men and women, some of their continent’s most energetic residents, are uprooting themselves for brand new lives in America. The continuing immigration of some of the Old World’s best and brightest suggests that the American experiment has not lost its power. Nor have all Europeans lowered their horizons to a mere steady-state replication of past comforts.
Even now, many Europeans dream fiercely of a better place. And for a surprising number of them, that place is still America.