U.N. Puts Spotlight on Global Immigration
RENE MONTAGNE, host:
Take the heated emotional debate going on in this country about immigration and imagine it on the global stage. That's what's expected to take place today and tomorrow at the United Nations.
Ministers and other officials from 130 countries are gathering for the first discussion on global migration. Their talks come as the number of migrants around the globe has exploded in recent years.
NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: Some 200 million people live in other countries legally, about 25 or 30 million do so illegally. That last group is not just people sneaking across the U.S./Mexico border; it's also Africans taking rickety boats to Spain or Italy, Asians crowding onto larger boats to Australia. Demetrios Papademetriou of the Migration Policy Institute says in all those places the influx is prompting hot political debate.
Mr. DEMETRIOS PAPADEMETRIOU (Migration Policy Institute): It is amazing to go to a place - I was at a ministerial meeting just last Friday in Copenhagen - and it was simply amazing to hear the Danes and the Dutch and the Germans and all that in the same conversation as we would have, or have had, in the United States in the past year or so.
LUDDEN: But when there've been attempts at conversation between the nations where these migrants are going and those they're leaving, Papademetriou calls it a classic dialogue of the deaf. Developing nations demand more visas so their citizens don't have to risk their lives to find decent work. But - and here's a familiar argument for Americans - many Western nations worry about national security and rapid cultural change. They say they just can't let more people in.
Mr. PAPADEMETRIOU: You know, a lot of people, and therefore their political leaders, are at their wits end as to how to basically try to bottle - to put that genie back into the bottle.
LUDDEN: That's not about to happen. Papademetriou says smuggling networks around the world are so entrenched, they can overcome the toughest border controls. And Austin Fragomen(ph), a U.S. Immigration lawyer who will take part in the U.N. meeting, says plummeting birth rates in the West mean labor shortages for decades to come.
Mr. AUSTIN FRAGOMEN (Immigration Lawyer): In these highly industrialized countries there's a greater need to have foreign workers, really on all levels, from high-skilled to essential workers.
LUDDEN: This week's U.N. meeting will make the case that industrialized nations would benefit by allowing more of these immigrants to be legal. Supporters say legal foreign workers contribute more to their host nation than those in the shadows.
As for developing nations, many worry about brain drain. But Gregory Maniatis, also of the Migration Policy Institute and an advisor to the U.N.'s special representative on migration, says it is possible to benefit from losing your best and brightest.
Mr. GREGORY MANIATIS (Migration Policy Institute): So we know, for instance, that in India about a third of the Internet startups there have been created by Indians who were in Silicon Valley in the '90s and the early parts of this decade.
LUDDEN: The United States, for one, is leery of this week's U.N. meeting. No official would speak on the record. But in a paper circulated this summer, the government said it feared the meeting would focus too much on migrant's rights and the obligations of countries who receive them, without looking at the responsibility of the countries they're coming from.
Organizers say, no matter; for them the mere fact that so many nations will openly discuss such a sensitive topic is huge progress.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.
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