Immigration is an issue that affects numerous people throughout the world. People immigrate to new countries in order to improve their lives. Sometimes their lives do improve. Sometimes they don’t.
One example of a country created by immigration is Argentina. Huge numbers of southern Europeans went to Argentina. They went there in order to get better opportunities and in order to improve their lives. During the nineteenth century, this decision made sense; Argentina was much wealthier than southern Europe.
Yet today Argentina is much poorer than southern Europe. The descendants of an Italian who moved to Argentina in 1900 are much worse off than the descendants of an Italian who stayed in Italy. For millions of Italians, the decision to immigrate to Argentina was a mistake. They should’ve stayed in Italy. The tragedy is doubled by the fact that these new Italians endured enormous discrimination in their new home in Argentina, in the hopes that their lives would improve. All for nothing.
Or take the case of the Japanese community in Brazil. During the early twentieth century tens of thousands of Japanese immigrated to Brazil, hoping to improve their living standards. Like the Italians in Argentina, the Japanese in Brazil would’ve been better off staying in Japan. Like the Italians in Argentina, the Japanese in Brazil also endured enormous discrimination. The discrimination was in fact worse; Argentina today is very Italian in character, but Brazil today is certainly not very Japanese in character. The Japanese in Brazil ended up being much poorer than those who didn’t leave Japan, as well as losing their heritage. To further the irony and the tragedy, the descendants who returned to Japan are rejected as foreign.
What of the United States, that other great recipient of immigration? For most Europeans, the decision to immigrate to the United States seems to have payed off. Americans still generally live better than Europeans (especially eastern Europeans), and the United States is dominated by Europeans. The descendants of a German immigrant in America are slightly better off than the descendants of a German who stayed in Germany. There are exceptions; perhaps the Swedes and Norwegians who went to America would’ve been better off staying in Sweden and Norway.
It’s more complicated for the non-Europeans who went to the United States. It’s worth asking, for instance, whether or not the descendants of the Africans enslaved in the United States are better off than the descendants of the Africans who stayed in Africa. Economically, the answer is yes; thanks to colonialism, African-Americans live better than Africans. Socially, of course, African-Americans have to contend with a terrible racism which does not exist in (most parts of) Africa. Is the economic gain worth the social cost?
In a sense immigration is a bet. It’s a bet that the new country is richer – and will stay richer – than the old country. Sometimes the bet pays off; sometimes it doesn’t. Take India. India is much poorer than the United States and likely to stay that way. An Indian who immigrated to the United States is probably better off than an Indian who stayed in India. His descendants may never be able to become president, but at least they’ll have running water and electricity.
Korea is a countervailing example. Take the stereotypical Korean who moves to the United States in 1975 and opens a convenience store. He kills himself working, has to deal with an unfamiliar language and culture, suffers racial discrimination – all in the knowledge that life in the United States is much better than life in Korea. His children will live better in the United States than in Korea. Because Korea is very poor and the United States is very rich. Yet as it turns out, forty years later Korea is a First World country. Who could have guessed that that would happen? The guy could have stayed in Korea, not suffered the discrimination of the United States, and ended up with just as much money. And his children would have had more opportunities in Korea.
The United States is not like Argentina or Brazil; most people who immigrated to the United States made the right choice for them and their descendants. Nevertheless, it is quite tragic when a group sacrifices so much to get to their dream country and then suffers so much in said country – only to find out decades later that they would have been better off staying at home.