Immigrants Are Key to Fighting Off Authoritarianism

9 minute read
Dunst (@CharlesDunst) is the author of Defeating the Dictators: How Democracy Can Prevail in the Age of the Strongman, from which this essay is adapted. A former foreign correspondent, he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and The Telegraph.  

On May 11, the COVID-19-era restrictions that allowed U.S. officials to quickly reject migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border expired. With the lapse of those restrictions, known as Title 42, tens of thousands of migrants are expected to soon arrive at the border in hopes of settling in the United States.

The images of chaos likely to emerge from this surge will quickly become a talking point on both the left and right, defining the American political debate for some period. As ever, this debate will center on the problems posed by migrants – rather than the benefits they might bring.

Something similar is true of the conversation across the pond. The United Kingdom’s current government has focused on the negatives of immigration, planning to slash the number of people crossing the English Channel by promising to deport anyone entering the country “illegally” and prevent them from filing asylum claims.

The United States and United Kingdom are not alone; immigration has become a defining and polarizing issue for democracies like Italy, Greece, and Australia, not to mention South Korea and Japan. Popular discussions in these countries tend to focus on migrants as a problem to be solved instead of an opportunity to boost our own economies. The real problem, however, is not migration itself, but the fact that very few countries have immigration policies fit for the 21st century.

The facts are clear. A huge number of advanced economies have shortages of either high- and low-skilled workers (or both), and will need to fill those gaps by welcoming people from abroad. In the long-term, these countries will need these immigrants to fuel economic growth, which otherwise risks slowing because of our own low fertility rates.

Pretending that immigrants are not necessary, and explicitly saying that they are not wanted, will scare people away and ultimately leave these countries poorer. Such a state of decreased opportunity – in which countries are short of the workers and tax revenue they need to prosper – risks the continued rise of illiberal populists able to tap into economic insecurity.

Of course, these populists, like Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán, can benefit from the perception of “too much” migration. Trump famously began his 2016 campaign by raging against migration from Mexico. But polls continue to show that majorities in countries as diverse as Australia, France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States believe immigrants make their countries stronger. Opposition to most immigration is a minority opinion, even if it is often the loudest one.

This is why it is so critical that pro-immigration leaders make the positive case for immigration by talking more about the tangible economic benefits immigrants bring, rather than focusing on terms like “justice” and “dignity” that risk falling flat at a time of global economic uncertainty.

Even leaders like British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida seem to understand the economic necessity of immigration. Both men have plans to bring in more high-skilled workers to their countries, despite trying to close off pathways for asylum-seekers (with the notable exception of Ukrainians fleeing war).

But democracies can only choose their immigrants to some extent. More frequently, people choose democracies, making the perilous trip as refugees.

Too often, even well-meaning politicians go along with discussions that describe refugees as a burden, rather than explaining how smart government policies – like job training – can actually turn refugees into drivers of the economy, as in Utica, New York and parts of Denmark.

On the other hand, anti-refugee policies risk driving potential migrants away and to more friendly advanced economies, most of which have their own demographic issues and will need immigrants as well. The global fight for talent is real, and countries with overly restrictive immigration policies could very much lose out, despite the advantages provided by top-class universities like Oxford, the cultural allure of Italy, or the tech advancements of Japan.

Yet as I point out in my new book, Defeating the Dictators: How Democracy Can Prevail in the Age of the Strongman, in 2018 – the last fully pre-COVID year – the anti-refugee government of Hungary accepted 67 percent more long-term immigrants per capita than did South Korea, and 87 percent more than Japan. Austria, with the immigration-skeptic Sebastian Kurz in power, accepted 85 percent more long-term immigrants per capita in that same year than did South Korea, and 94 percent more than Japan.

Immigration to the United States, meanwhile, has fallen every year since 2016. The UK, for its part, accepted 77 percent fewer refugees in the first three quarters of 2022 than during the same period in 2019. UK-bound immigration overall fell by 90 percent in 2020.

Those numbers have since recovered modestly in the UK, owing to migrants from Hong Kong, Afghanistan, and Ukraine. But as one diplomat in London told me recently, resettlement difficulties are prompting more of these refugees to move to places like Germany and Denmark instead.

Still, any recovery in net migration is positive because native-born Britons are simply not having enough children to keep the country’s economy afloat. The UK posts a fertility rate of just 1.6 children per woman, far below the 2.1 rate demographers say is needed for a stable population.

In fact, not a single European Union country comes particularly close to that 2.1 rate. Neither do Canada (1.4) or the United States (1.6). Japan posts an even worse rate of around 1.3. And South Korea posts the world’s worst rate, of 0.78.

Without welcoming both refugees and economic immigrants to account for those low fertility rates, our populations will continue to age. Governments will have no choice but to impose higher taxes on younger people to pay for elders’ healthcare, or shift funds from other priorities like the social safety net. Either choice is likely to slow the economy and prompt predictable public backlash, particularly in many Western countries where people already distrust their governments. A dearth of immigrants will make likely the kind of economic downturns that just about promise the rise of more Orbán-like politicians who come to power on the back of popular discontent before looking to do away with their country’s liberal institutions.

On a purely economic level, immigrants are key to fighting off such authoritarianism.

It helps, too, that immigrants innovate and open businesses at a greater rate than native-born citizens. UK government studies have found that immigrants, on average, contribute more to the public purse than native-born Britons do. Immigrants to the United States add somewhere around $2 trillion to the country’s GDP annually. Individual refugees pay $21,000 more in taxes than they receive in benefits during their first twenty years in the country.

Immigrants also tend to be highly entrepreneurial. Those who come to the United States are 80 percent more likely to launch a new business than their native counterparts. That is not surprising: People willing to leave behind their own homes for an unknown life abroad are the same people willing to take risks, which is key to innovation and entrepreneurship.

So, while Brits may not know it, they owe the MINI car to Greece: Greek-born asylum-seeker Sir Alec Issigonis founded the company that produced an icon of British 1960s culture. An immigrant from the Soviet Union, Sergey Brin, co-founded Google in the United States. An immigrant from Turkey and the child of one played a key role in Germany in developing the mRNA COVID vaccines from which the whole world benefited.

My own great-grandfather Solomon Lieberman came to the United States from Transylvania, now Romania, in 1921. He fled the chaos and anti-Semitism of post-World War I Europe, making his way nearly 1,000 miles from Sibiu to Antwerp before sailing to Philadelphia and eventually settling in immigrant-rich New York, where I grew up.

His journey is one contemporarily repeated, often under far more arduous circumstances, by tens of thousands of people every day. Their decision to drop everything at home and seek a better life elsewhere is a humbling reminder of how democracies continue to pull on the world’s heartstrings in a way autocracies do not. There is a reason why – despite the vast amount of money China and Russia have poured into Asia and Africa – emigrants still prefer the West. There is a reason why the United States remains the top desired destination for potential migrants worldwide, and why their other most preferred destinations are all democracies.

That reason is the promise of the good life: of the freedom, vibrance, and wealth that only democracy can deliver, and that autocracies still cannot. China, the Gulf States, and other autocracies can lay claim to the future all they want, but the weary people of this world – those fleeing home only because home, as the Somali-British poet Warsan Shire has written, “is the mouth of a shark” – give lie to these dreams. It is always those facing the most desperate straits who are most likely to speak the truth. And in their most dire moments, those brave people fleeing the jaws of poverty and violence continue to choose us. They continue to choose democracy.

Their choice should remind us that democracies are an oddity not only in the course of human history, but today, too, when there are more autocracies in the world than there are democracies. Their choice should remind us of how lucky we are as citizens of democracies. It should remind us not only of the need to fight for democracy, but also to stand up to those who would prefer that we put up walls to keep out immigrants – not only because of economics, but because these immigrants are the best ambassadors for democracy. Every immigrant demonstrates all that we can offer, and all that autocracies cannot.

This is certainly not a call for open borders, but for smart borders that democratic leaders can use to advance their own countries’ national interests. It’s a call for politicians to seize the issue and make the case for immigration, rather than letting the politics of the issue seize them. Because to get smarter immigration systems, democracies will need brave politicians willing to speak positively and honestly about immigration’s benefits.

Immigrants’ drive for success and their willingness to work for it have long been what make democracies great. Today, it is immigrants who can help keep our democracies together. It is immigrants, then, who will help us defeat the dictators, not only today, but tomorrow, too – if only our governments let them.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.