Growing up in Minnesota as the granddaughter of a Swedish immigrant, I got to enjoy all the trappings of Scandinavian picture postcard holidays. Straw ornaments and Swedish flags decorating a tree stacked high with gifts. The Lutheran church’s St. Lucia breakfast, where girls with crowns of candles serve lefse and other pastries.

The irony is that my grandfather’s family in Sweden could afford few of these trappings. In 1896, poverty was as severe there as in some of the poorest countries today. My great-grandparents had little choice but to send their firstborn son, at 14, to make money in America.

At least upon his arrival, he was not treated as a criminal. Nobody asked to see your green card in those days. But otherwise, things weren’t all that different for my grandfather than they are for Mexican or Haitian immigrants in the United States today.

Soon after he left Sweden, however, that country changed dramatically. In the early 1900s, it became the fastest-growing industrial economy. The great migration wave completely dried up. Why?

This is a question worth exploring in the context of today’s immigration debate. Given a choice, most people would prefer to stay in their home countries. How can we help more countries reduce the economic pressures that drive immigration?

The story of Sweden’s rise to one of the richest nations is a complicated one. They didn’t strike oil. Besides fish and forests, they had little natural resource wealth.

But Sweden’s development wasn’t stunted by colonialism. Democracy took root early and led to strong labor unions and an educated citizenry. They pushed for shared prosperity, with policies aimed at full employment and generous social services funded through progressive taxation.

Under what came to be known as the “Swedish Model,” the government partnered with private firms to develop railways, telecommunications, and hydroelectric power. In the early stages of their industrial development, they kept tariffs on imports high and only gradually lifted trade barriers. To avoid strikes, employers signed cooperation pacts with unions that guaranteed some of the world’s highest wages.

This approach is nearly the mirror opposite of the policies promoted in the developing world during the past few decades. International financial institutions, such as the World Bank, have focused on ways to attract foreign investment, rather than building up domestic human resources and markets. This has meant low tax rates and minimal environmental and labor protections. Our trade policies with Mexico have also favored large corporations. The removal of import protections for small farmers, for example, has left millions in the countryside with few alternatives to migration.

Of course another key to Sweden’s economic success is the fact that it hasn’t been in a war for more than 200 years. Therein lies a lesson for all countries, including our own.

This year, as we hang the Swedish ornaments, I will think about my grandfather, and about all the other immigrants who have made the wrenching decision to leave families and communities behind in search of a decent livelihood in a faraway land.

May immigration someday be a real choice and not a matter of survival.

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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