Europe’s migrant crisis dwarfs U.S. problems on the Mexican border

Share via

What would Donald Trump do about the immigration crisis in Europe? If his actions matched his rhetoric, he would react much like the Hungarian governmental leaders who have barred Germany-bound Syrian refugees from the Budapest railway station, strung razor wire along the border and threatened to send 3,500 soldiers to the Serbian frontier to stem the human tide.

The United States has a challenge dealing with illegal immigration from Latin America, but it pales in comparison with what Europeans are facing. This is not something new. I was in Denmark on a European Union fellowship in the early 1990s and observed how that small, ethnically homogeneous country was struggling to cope with a rush of migrants from Eastern Europe set off by the dissolution of the Soviet bloc. Today’s much larger crisis could be the first gush of a human tsunami that will swamp the continent.

This year, Germany is expecting to receive 800,000 asylum seekers fleeing the civil war in Syria and the violent chaos elsewhere in the Middle East. The Hungarians claim 156,000 migrants have already passed through their country since January 1. Many thousands of other economic and political migrants have for several years been scheming to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa. Thousands have made it; hundreds more have died trying. The resources of the countries that are initial destination points for this trans-Mediterranean migration, such as Italy, Greece and Spain, have been sorely taxed. Meanwhile, the British government is resisting the persistent efforts of migrants who are attempting to cross the English Channel from Calais.


Insisting Europeans need to live up to their humanitarian ideals and find room for the refugees, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called on all EU countries to do their part, with an admonition to the richest countries that they should do the most. Two of the wealthiest, France and the U.K., have rebuffed her lecturing. This is one of many signs that Europe is torn between those, like Merkel, who believe Europeans betray their own heritage if they refuse aid to desperate people seeking refuge and those who fear Europe cannot keep an open door for all comers without eventually losing its cultural identity.

For those of us on the western side of the Atlantic who live in a country built by successive waves of immigrants, it is easy to praise Merkel and scoff at the narrow-mindedness of those who fear the flood of outsiders, but too much smugness ignores the scope of the problem Europeans face.

Start with geography. Anyone who has played the board game “Risk” knows that Europe is the most vulnerable location on the map. It is a relatively small land area appended to the western edge of the Asian landmass. While the United States has just one problematic border, Europe lies nearly wide open to vast, traumatized regions to the east and south.

Trump and other anti-immigration Republicans worry about all those people living south of the Rio Grande. Consider, though, who is down there. In all of Latin America and the Caribbean, there are 617 million people. Certainly there are serious trouble spots, but most Latin American countries are relatively stable. Several have reasonably vibrant economies. They are all predominantly populated by Christians, the majority of whom speak a language that was historically dominant in the part of the United States where I work and live. (Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco were not, after all, named by an Englishman.) The fact is, Latin American immigrants can blend fairly quickly with U.S. culture because they have long been part of it.

Europe, by contrast, hovers just above the great mass of Africa, a continent with a population of 1.2 billion — a number that is rising fast. The majority of African countries are poorly governed economic basket cases. Several, from Libya to the Central African Republic, are in the throes of anarchy and civil war. Add to civil strife and extreme poverty the coming agricultural crisis that climate change will bring and it is hard to imagine African migration to Europe will not dramatically increase in the years ahead. Throw in the perpetual upheaval in the Middle East and it is clear Europe faces a crisis exponentially bigger than the immigration problem in the U.S.

Europe is a collection of ethnically distinct countries that are historically Christian, affluent and democratic. As much as they have in common, Europeans have only learned to get along with each other in the last seven decades. Is it realistic to think they can now navigate blissfully through an incoming tide of refugees and immigrants who are poor, darker-skinned, predominantly Muslim and often suspicious of Western values such as secularism, free speech and the equality of women? It seems more likely they will begin looking for their own Donald Trump.