Immigration and Its (European) Malcontents

I had a discussion with a pair of colleagues recently about immigration and immigrants in the US and various parts of Europe. I wasn't particularly surprised to be representing the most "pro-immigration" line. I put that in quotes because I don't see it that way myself. My view on illegal immigration is pretty hard-line, really. My issue is that the legal sort of immigration is full of difficult barriers and policies that overtly discriminate against the poor and are at base, though perhaps inadvertently, racist. Under such circumstances, it's not surprising that illegal immigration flourishes.

A quick overview of how immigration laws are too strict (if you think they're too lax, bear with me here, because I'll get to the legitimate concerns people have below): in America in particular, businesses complain that they cannot get the skilled workers they need because of immigration problems. We're talking about the bright, young, able, get-up-and-go people that have made America such a dynamic place. The backlash against illegal immigration in America has led to a clamp-down on all forms, including that of people who ought to be let in. This lack of workers for key areas has driven up wages for some people, while they have stagnated for others. This has increased income inequality, contrary to what some people seem to believe about immigration. As a gay man with a foreign partner, I also regularly bemoan the federal government's refusal to recognize us as a couple so that he may immigrate to the the US (he is also a well qualified, hard-working individual). But I recognize that I'm from a small subset of society, so I'll focus on the main things.

I'll move back towards the title topic now: there are "problems" that people have with immigration, and not all of them can be brushed off as racism. In some ways, the social systems of Europe make the problems more acute. They have less illegal immigration (hence the term "Fortress Europe"), but immigrants here are often stereotyped as a drag on the system all the same. One of the main worries goes something like this: A UK citizen from Bangladesh decides to marry a woman from his home village (presumably because UK women are too uppity). He does not make a whole lot of money, and his new bride does not speak English, has few skills, and will not bring money at all. With her and perhaps some children to support, they will rely on social spending. There are therefore laws in Britain that stipulate a minimum income for a sponsor before someone can immigrate as a spouse (the US has them, too). Some people think the bar should be raised higher, though, beyond the level that would get them off social support. They are right to point out that taxes on other people must be higher to support this non-integrated Bangladeshi family.

This is where I, the classic liberal, said "well, so what? He is a UK citizen and, like any other UK citizen, has the right to marry whomever he pleases and has the same rights as any other when it comes to the UK's social system. There are plenty of ethnic Britons who require assistance from the state as well!" I naively thought the argument might end there. It didn't. "Yes, but they're here already. That doesn't mean we have to let in more people knowing that they will be a burden on everyone else, too."

Ahh, here's the racist part: they're South Asian, so they'll be a burden, just like those dirty Eastern Europeans. Well, that comeback was a bit unfair of me, as my colleagues pointed out, because the estimation that a man on a low income would struggle to support a wife unlikely to get a job due to her low skills and lack of English is clearly reasonable! They are right, of course, and that is regardless of race or ethnic origin. Still, I wasn't completely wrong: one colleague insisted that certain people have not proved themselves to be hardworking. That is clearly racist, despite the ensuing arguments, because whatever the truth statistically (and I am unaware of the statistics on this), this fails to look at root causes and, here's the important part: is racist because it lumps an entire race or ethnicity together into one stereotyped class. Sorry guys, that's actually the definition of racism. "It's not racism if it's 'true' " is not how it works! There is a difference between recognizing that African American men are more like to go to prison than white American men, on the one hand, and deciding not to give an African American man a job because he is presumably criminal on the other. The former is not racist, the latter most definitely is -- regardless of whether or not there is some logic at the base of discrimination!

Glossing over the race issue for a moment, which I think (hope?) was just a muddled reaction to conclusions that are correct at base: are we obliged to accept anyone into our country (whichever one that is) even if we believe they'll be a burden on taxpayers? How about this: don't believe -- find out! That was my proposed solution. Make people learn at least a basic level of the country's main language before they immigrate. That seems fair. What? They won't have enough money in their home countries to go to classes? If it's a poor country, chances are classes are cheap. And they're marrying someone with a job from a richer country -- if s/he can't dish out for a few language classes, then I think we really do have a problem.

Once they're in the country, they're presumably not citizens overnight. There is no reason why they must be provided immediate access to social benefits, particularly if they have met minimum income requirements for sponsorship. Maybe there could be a probationary period in which they must show that they can support themselves without benefits before they are granted citizenship and "recourse to public funds" as they say here in the UK. This brings problems of having to deport people after they've lived in the country for a couple years already, which is painful and will always be a bit inhumane. But consider that the alternative may be to deny them access in the first place, simply because we "believe" they're not the sort to go out and get a job or start a successful business themselves upon arrival. The other alternative of just letting all married people in, I fear, ignores real anxieties that people have and opens the social system up to abuse and strain.

My liberal values tell me everyone should be given a chance, regardless of the "true" statistics about their group's traits, whether that group is defined ethnically, geographically, sexually, religiously, etc. As an economic liberal (a "conservative" in American terms), they also tell me that we are not obliged to provide equal outcomes for everyone. Not giving something to someone is not the same as taking something away. This doesn't mean, however, that it's all right to base these decisions on policies designed to appear economic, while looking suspiciously as if they were designed to ensnare specific ethnic groups in response to public pressure -- all while hiding behind "rational racism" based on statistical evidence.

For my next post, I plan to talk about Racism, "Culturalism" (a new term I've just heard that sounds suspiciously like a PC attempt to mask racism or apply the same ideas to a non-racial group), and value-relativism (the idea that everyone's ideas and values are equal, which is where I draw the line as far as being PC goes).

I look forward to any comments on either topic!


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