Flooding. Gun violence. Teen suicide. Earthquakes. COVID-19. The Cambridge Dictionary defines “emergency” as: something dangerous or serious, such as an accident, that happens suddenly or unexpectedly and needs fast action in order to avoid harmful results. While it’s obvious why a flood is an emergency, it’s less obvious how to classify a bunch of ordinary people crossing an imaginary line. Is this an emergency?
It is true that today, there are lots of people on the move, more than there were at some points in the past, fewer than at others. Yet politics and the media around the world are filled with apocalyptic language over the supposed “emergency” of immigration. Few question whether immigration, is, indeed, an emergency. Many stories about immigration start with the assumption that immigration is something alarming that must be stopped, instead of a natural part of human existence that is neither bad nor good, but simply a fact.
Of course, irregular migration IS an emergency for those engaged in it, in part due to the very high death toll created by the global immigration system itself, but this is not an emergency for people living in immigration-receiving countries, nor would it be an emergency if we had better pathways to legal immigration. So it is not the fact of immigration itself, but rather the total failure of good policies and laws, that has created an emergency. Drugs are both an emergency because they lead to addition and overdose, but also because failed policies have ignited a violent drug war in many parts of the world.
So what of immigration itself? Is it, in and of itself, an emergency? Of course, increases in immigration can worsen other emergencies, like a housing crisis. But many factors contribute to a complex emergency like a housing crisis, so immigration is perhaps best seen as a contributing factor to certain emergencies, rather than an emergency in and of itself. In fact, immigration simply does not affect most non-immigrating people except indirectly. Most public policy debates about a real emergency begin with a widespread and serious harm, something that everyone in the street is talking about, like “the rent is too damn high,” a fact of modern life that is felt and experienced by large numbers of people or can be easily validated by a casual perusal of the rental listings in one’s neighbourhood. This is completely different from immigration, which for most non-immigrants, takes place mostly online and on TV.
Immigration is not like the housing problems faced by many city dwellers because it has not caused suffering, or even had a measurable impact, on the lives of the vast majority of ordinary people who are not, themselves, migrating. And while immigration may be contributing to the housing emergency, it is far from the only, nor even the most significant, cause. NYC grew from 3.4 million people in 1900 to 5.6 million people in 1920, and to respond to the appalling living conditions in many tenements, huge apartment complexes were built across the city, while the subway enabled people to begin moving into the suburbs, improving housing conditions. Nothing like the scale of early 20th century housing construction or public transport is even being dreamed of, let alone proposed, in most cities today. Yet, large-scale building would be the easiest way to solve the housing crisis.
All of this leaves the immigration debate so divorced from day-to-day reality that a veil of the surreal has descended over the entire topic, with many people holding passionate convictions on something that they have never experienced, does not affect them directly, and contributes only indirectly to their problems. This form of politics-as-sport is perhaps the real emergency being created by immigration.