Sunday, October 17, 2010

Young Immigrants, Old Kurmudgeons: EU Demographics & Decline

Demographer Jean-Claude Barreau weighs in on Europe's immigration debate and population decline (which dovetails nicely with my last post on women's issues and fertility in France). Responding to a recently published demographic study by Eurostat, the European Commission's statistics bureau, Barreau puts forth several dubious conclusions, notably that

"The European Commission has proposed only one solution: immigration. This is a potential solution, but if it is the only one, immigration will result in the substitution of a Europe’s population. Without a sufficient number of indigenous children, we will be unable to integrate children that have arrived from elsewhere. When a schoolroom or a neighbourhood no longer has any indigenous children, integration becomes impossible."

Barreau's perspective is of an inherently French-republican sway. He also reveals himself a strongly anti-immigration advocate, making the arching assumption that readers agree on what an "indigenous" citizen is or should be.  His words belie an unspoken laziness that can sometimes characterize how Europeans approach their role in the integration process, insinuating that the onus is on migrants to make the effort -- often herculean, and unassisted -- for streamlining into their adopted societies.

Nor does Barreau grant credence to the pattern by which immigrant neighborhoods, even when overwelmingly composed of foreign-born residents, still usually manage to integrate. One needs only look at the byzantine ethnic quilt that is New York City: the Big Apple positively teems with immigrant children, who develop a culture that may not be recognizably American, but is certainly not of the old country, either. 

The rubbing-together of these neighborhoods provides the heat that brings the famous "melting pot" to simmer (which is real, even if it doesn't always work smoothly), infusing the common culture of the host land with that of the immigrants who come to populate it. 

Barreau's dreaded image of an all-immigrant classroom is precisely what one sees in many New York City schools. Yet those kids still learn English, still mix with the dominant culture and values, and still forge a way toward a national identity with vibrancy and perpetual innovation. So long as immigrant kids live in a host country and stay there, they'll form their own culture, which will belong in the place from which it sprung and might be furthermore celebrated as a cultural product of value. (Think Junot Diaz, Wyclef Jean, Zinedine Zidane and so many others.)

It may be that opinion leaders like Barreau chafe not at today's immigrant waves, and those sure to reach the shores of Europe in the future; perhaps what truly galls his camp is the inevitable change that will come when new migrants bring new vitality to a continent unwilling or uncompelled to reproduce... And what new dynamism will owe its birth to those unlike the aging experts, who can't see their likeness in Europe's crystal ball?

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