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July 06, 2015

Poland vs the United States: immigration

This is the eleventh article in a short series about Poland, Europe, and the United States. To explore the entire series, start here.

There are quite a few corners of the world where the ratio of immigrants to native-born citizens is remarkably high. Many of these places are small or rapidly growing countries - say, Monaco or Qatar. Some others, including several European states, just happen to be on the receiving end of transient, regional demographic shifts; for example, in the past decade, over 500,000 people moved from Poland to the UK. But on the list of foreigner-friendly destinations, the US deserves a special spot: it is an enduring home to by far the largest, most diverse, and quite possibly best-assimilated migrant population in the world.

The inner workings of the American immigration system are a fascinating mess - a tangle of complex regulation, of multiple overlapping bureaucracies, and of quite a few unique social norms. The bureaucratic machine itself is ruthlessly efficient, issuing several million non-tourist visas and processing over 700,000 naturalization applications every year. But the system is also marred by puzzling dysfunction: for example, it allows highly skilled foreign students to attend US universities, sometimes granting them scholarships - only to show many of them the door the day they graduate. It runs a restrictive H-1B visa program that ties foreign workers to their petitioning employers, preventing them from seeking better wages - thus artificially depressing the salaries of some citizen and permanent resident employees who now have to compete with H-1B captives. It also neglects the countless illegal immigrants who, with the tacit approval of legislators and business owners, prop up many facets of the economy - but are denied the ability to join the society even after decades of staying out of trouble and doing honest work.

Despite being fairly picky about the people it admits into its borders, in many ways, the United States is still an exceptionally welcoming country: very few other developed nations unconditionally bestow citizenship onto all children born on their soil, run immigration lotteries, or allow newly-naturalized citizens to invite their parents, siblings, and adult children over, no questions asked. At the same time, the US immigration system has a shameful history of giving credence to populist fears about alien cultures - and of implementing exclusionary policies that, at one time or another, targeted anyone from the Irish, to Poles, to Arabs, to people from many parts of Asia or Africa. Some pundits still find this sort of scaremongering fashionable, now seeing Mexico as the new threat to the national identity and to the American way of life. The claim made very little sense 15 years ago - and makes even less of it today, as the migration from the region has dropped precipitously and has been eclipsed by the inflow from other parts of the world.

The contradictions, the dysfunction, and the occasional prejudice aside, what always struck me about the United States is that immigration is simply a part of the nation's identity; the principle of welcoming people from all over the world and giving them a fair chance is an axiom that is seldom questioned in any serious way. When surveyed, around 80% Americans can identify their own foreign ancestry - and they often do this with enthusiasm and pride. Europe is very different, with national identity being a more binary affair; I always felt that over there, accepting foreigners is seen as a humanitarian duty, not an act of nation-building - and that this attitude makes it harder for the newcomers to truly integrate into the society.

In the US, as a consequence of treating contemporary immigrants as equals, many newcomers face a strong social pressure to make it on their own, to accept American values, and to adopt the American way of life; it is a powerful, implicit social contract that very few dare to willingly renege on. In contrast to this, post-war Europe approaches the matter differently, seeing greater moral value in letting the immigrants preserve their cultural identity and customs, with the state stepping in to help them jumpstart their new lives through a variety of education programs and financial benefits. It is a noble concept, although I'm not sure if the compassionate European approach always worked better than the more ruthless and pragmatic American method: in France and in the United Kingdom, massive migrant populations have been condemned to a life of exclusion and hopelessness, giving rise to social unrest and - in response - to powerful anti-immigrant sentiments and policies. I think this hasn't happened to nearly the same extent in the US, perhaps simply because the social contract is structured in a different way - but then, I know eminently reasonable folks who would disagree.

As for my own country of origin, it occupies an interesting spot. Historically a cosmopolitan nation, Poland has lost much of its foreign population and ethnic minorities to the horrors of World War II and to the policies implemented within the Soviet Bloc - eventually becoming one of the most culturally and ethnically homogeneous nations on the continent. Today, migrants comprise less than 1% of its populace, and most of them come from the neighboring, culturally similar Slavic states. Various flavors of xenophobia run deep in the society, playing right into the recent pan-European anti-immigration sentiments. As I'm writing this, Poland is fighting the European Commission tooth and nail not to take three thousand asylum seekers from Syria; many politicians and pundits want to first make sure that all the refugees are of Christian faith. For many Poles, reasonable concerns over non-assimilation and extremism blend with a wholesale distrust of foreign cultures.

For the next article in the series, click here.


  1. Really enjoy reading PL vs USA articles, especially interesting from a perspective of person which took a bit different path in life.
    Well, yes we are culturally and ethnically homogeneous nation, but it's all about "money" (safety/quality of life etc). We are still poor country, so PL is usually a transit country for foreigners not a new home. This is actually is changing a bit. At my workplace you can find a lot of young people from different european countries (mainly Ukraine/Spain). It's going in a good direction. But that's true that we are usually not accepting people from different cultures and your example with families from Syria is just the prove. On the other hand we can see a rise of ghettos in western Europe with immigrants that can't asymilate within a few generations. If in US it really works that way that you feel you have to adjust a bit, then in my opinion it is a way better approach than Europe "don't change anything we tolerate everything". Differences are fine, but there must be something common, a value, whatever.

    Anyway, what is behind this articles? Is emigration works that way that you still thinking about your home/origins?


    1. I think it's hard to prescribe convincing solutions. The systems create different incentives and expectations, and both have their share of problems. I like the US model for being more clear-cut, but I also recognize that it fails many folks.

      I would also be wary of demonizing the immigrant populations or describing them as holding fundamentally alien cultural values. Or rather, I suspect that instances of radicalization and hostility toward their host countries are rooted in poverty, a sense of exclusion, rejection, and hopelessness. After all, quite a few Western teenagers are leaving for Syria to join IS, too.

      I do worry that some parts of Europe seem to be moving from one extreme (providing welfare but not attempting to integrate immigrant populations into the society to give them a sense of purpose and accomplishment in their new reality) to another (banning head coverings for "security reasons", voting hardline anti-immigration populists into the office, or pushing for that bizarre social media control thing from Cameron)... that seems like a sure way to antagonize existing immigrant populations and not accomplish much else.

      As for your last question - dunno. The first article in the series was a bit of a personal retrospective. And then, I figured that there are some topics that commonly come up in conversations, so why not write down some thoughts ahead of the time? And to some extent, yeah, emigration puts you in this weird netherworld where you mentally compare many things not only to the standards of your current country, but also to the standards of the old one.

  2. Few things.
    This "very welcoming" country has to welcome immigrants. Without them USA would get into many problems and stagnate. With no immigrants would be no folks to pump up computer and high-tech industry. No folks to push forward key universities. No folks to pick fruits and vegetables of California or to do worse construction jobs.

    Openness for immigrants also varies across the country. It is great on both coats, but try to live on midwest…or bible belt. Not that nice nor funny :-/ especially if you are not white.

    If I could choose now, I would rather immigrate to Australia...

    1. Sure; the prevailing contemporary view is that immigration is net beneficial to the host country when done right. And it may be crucial to many aging nations, especially in places such as Poland, where the fertility rate is very low.

      On the flip side, the US has been an immigrant nation for much longer than the fertility rate concerns or high costs of labor have been been around. On top of that, socioeconomic models are generally poor predictors of attitudes toward immigration in the US; psychological approaches are much better (

      Australia is interesting, and definitely one of the few other immigrant-built, developed, high-income Western countries. I'm not sure it's a lot more hospitable to refugees and other non-familial, non-employment-related immigration, though. IIRC, their mandatory detention system is far worse than in the US, with many folks staying imprisoned for years; in the US, when ICE detains you, they generally either kick you out of the country, or let you out on supervised release until your application is processed or until your immigration court hearing, unless you are particularly high-risk (e.g., prior criminal history).

    2. FWIW mandatory immigration detention in Australia is almost exclusively for poor immigrants who attempt to arrive by sea. It's intentionally grotesque to maximise its intended role as deterrent, regardless of the human cost.

      IMO it's completely evil (Greg Egan summed it up well[1]), but seems a durable part of Australian politics - it's been this way since 2001 and has helped contribute to the downfall of one political party who made some modest reversals of its worst parts.

      If you're looking for a nation with ethically clean hands, then I'm sorry to say that the princess is in another castle.


  3. It's a real shame that there's any discussion about giving an asylum to people escaping from the country at war. The only discussion should be "how" we can help, not "if".

  4. I haven't had the chance to read all your posts, but I have enjoyed reading the few that I did. With elections coming up in America, I'm curious as to what the candidates will say in regards to immigration. Immigration has been and will continue to be a tough topic and it will be equally difficult to find a solution for it.