In disparaging desperately poor countries whose “wretched refuse,” in poet Emma Lazarus’s eloquent lyric, seek refuge on our shores, Donald Trump urged America to seek more immigration of the “best and the brightest,” specifically mentioning Norway.
The problem, of course, is that few Norwegians want to come. In fiscal year 2016, exactly 362 Norwegians became permanent legal residents of the United States. Short of kidnapping Norwegians and using extreme rendition to coerce them to enter our shores, there is no way to increase Norwegian immigration.
And why should they come? Norway has full employment, a competitive private economy, one of the world’s most comprehensive welfare states, paid parental leave of a year after a child is born, universal health insurance, and free higher education. Its life expectancy far exceeds ours, its GDP per capita is $70,912, compared to $57,638 in the U.S. Citizen satisfaction surveys rate Norway as the world’s happiest country. And this was the case before they struck oil.
The place is pristine and almost crime-free. Indeed, from the perspective of Norway, it is America that looks like kind of a dritt hull—that’s Norwegian for shit-hole.
I wish I could end this piece right here. All the U.S. needs is to become a successful social democracy, like Norway, and all would be well, right?
Alas, we surely need Norway’s economic policies—but the challenges do not end there. Because Norway, like the U.S., is currently facing a serious backlash against immigration.
Not surprisingly, people don’t want to leave Norway. People want to come to Norway.
The Norwegians are a tolerant people. In World War II, occupied by the Nazis, they mounted relentless guerilla operations against the Germans. They rescued Jews.
In their generosity, the Norwegians, who have a homogenous nation of just 5.3 million people, have one of the world’s highest rates of immigration relative to population. About 14 percent of the population is foreign-born. In the U.S., long accustomed to assimilating immigrants, the figure is 13 percent.
Migration to Norway, especially the 49 percent of migrants who come from outside Europe, has produced backlash. Norway, whose usual government was Labour-led for most of the postwar era, today is governed by a conservative coalition which includes members of the right-wing populist Progress Party.
As a condition of joining, the Party demanded a much tougher policy on admitting refugees. In 2015, Sylvi Listhaug of the Progress Party was named Norway’s first minister of immigration, and has supervised the crackdown.
So while neighboring Sweden admitted 160,000 refugees in 2016, Norway took in just 30,000. And this year that has been cut to just 2,000.
Meanwhile, support for the Progress Party held steady at more than 16 percent of the vote in last September’s elections, some of it at the expense of the Labor Party, which is more open-minded on refugees and immigrants.
In Sweden, which has maintained a more open policy on refugees, the Social Democratic party governs in a weak, three-party coalition, and its stance on migrants has driven some of its historic working class base into the arms of ultra-nationalist populists. In Denmark, the Social Democratic Party, now in opposition, has suffered a similar fate and now takes a much harder line on immigrants.
What’s the takeaway? Though Trump’s language and plain racism were disgusting, even in the world’s most tolerant countries there is an anti-immigrant backlash.
Alas, many Americans who objected to Trump’s words sympathize with the sentiments—why do we need all these refugees?
It does little good to remind people that their ancestors often came from countries such as Ireland, Italy, or Eastern Europe that were once considered hellholes. Lazarus’s term, “wretched refuse,” meant ironically, captured the reality perfectly.
It is doubly ironic that the original African “immigrants” were brought here unwillingly, as slaves. From the perspective of those in chains, the plantation was the original American shithole.
Reconciling a strong democracy and a resilient economy with a socially tolerable level of immigration is tricky. It is even harder when the president is a crude, racist demagogue like Donald Trump, but not easy even with the most enlightened leadership.