Politicians and the news media have decided that jumping on immigrants is a way to inflame the prejudices of the locals and make them believe that it matters who wins the next presidential election. The most vile, racist sentiment is being stirred up as the candidates compete to be seen as the best person to fix the “problem” of people wanting to move to the united states without jumping through the hoops the government mandates for legal entry into its jurisdiction. Immigrants are demonized for everything from stealing americans’ jobs and overtaxing the finances of hospitals and school districts to importing drugs and corrupting american culture.
People in this country tolerate cops shooting people who are trying to cross the border. They ignore the fact that immigrants are dying in the desert trying to evade these brutes and make a new life. They accept, and even celebrate, the fact that people who have lived here for years can be arrested and imprisoned simply because they didn’t get government permission to move here. Their jobs are snatched from them, their families are torn apart, and they are deported back to their country of origin penniless, having lost everything they once had.
People support, or at least put with, this loathsome abuse of other human beings because they believe the nonsense they are being fed about countries and borders and nationality and culture. They have been educated to believe that those born in some specific geographical region, and those who have been officially allowed to enter by the powers-that-be, are automatically part of a club of sorts. All members of this organization supposedly have the same interests, wants, freedoms, rights, whatever, and anyone from anywhere else needs to suck it up and learn to live with the circumstances into which they were born.
Both democrats and republicans attack immigrants and have made closing the borders an electoral issue. Since the issue is playing so well in the electoral theater we will likely have to listen to this bigotry for the next year or so. But although the volume has been turned up for the presidential campaign, the sentiments being expressed by politicians and voters alike are a standard feature of american political thinking and show the superficiality of american inclusiveness and generosity.
The Nationalist Idea
The real problem here is nationalism, the idea that the place of one’s birth or residence determines one’s interests, beliefs, and loyalties. This idea is not new, and is as irrational and destructive as it ever was. It underlies wars, it justifies hatred based on ethnicity or skin color, it dovetails quite nicely with religious bigotry. And it serves to empower rulers who can make political hay from their subjects’ petty prejudices, distracting the “masses” from real evils like the slaughter in iraq or corporate tyranny, and instead getting them fired up about the mexican groundskeeper working down the street without a visa.
But there is no moral or factual justification for such a view. Nations and countries did not (and do not) arise naturally as voluntary groupings of like-minded individuals who came together to pursue similar interests. They have always been political institutions based on force and obedience, where rulers use myths of national identity to manipulate the ruled and maintain their own power. This has been true in ancient egypt and mexico, medieval europe, post-colonial africa, and today’s balkans.
It matters not what the official ideology of the government ruling any specific country is. Governments always consider the maintenance of their borders and the definition of who is and isn’t a citizen to be two of their primary functions, and they emphasizes the importance of boundaries and nationality in the indoctrination of their subjects. People are encouraged to identify with their rulers and failure to support “their” government is disloyal, if not treasonous. Most of the citizens take this ideology to heart and actually believe that their status as americans (or russians or nigerians or whatever) actually makes them somehow different in some important way from those in other countries.
The American Dream
In the united states, this has come to mean that americans believe they have certain rights and privileges, as well as a moral status, that people in other countries neither have nor are necessarily entitled to. It is a fortress mentality, as it were: our virtuous (immigrant, slave-holding, and war-making) ancestors fashioned this paragon of virtue that we have inherited, and the rest of the world can admire and envy us, but only from afar. It would appear that there is a limited amount of freedom and wealth available in the world, and if people who want to are allowed to come into the united states, those of us already here will have less of both. We need to secure the borders and keep all but a few lucky newcomers out so we don’t lose any of our privileges or wealth by sharing our good fortune with too many unworthy others. And we must never lose sight of the terrorists massing at the border who want to punish and kill us for our good fortune. After all, they hate our freedoms, we are told.
This widespread outlook, which sees americans as “us” and virtually everyone else as “them,” sets the tone for discussions of immigration. And although “illegal” immigration is what gains most of the attention and news coverage, there is really a bias against almost any immigration. There is opposition to work visas being issued to skilled workers at present, and little support for even temporary “guest” worker programs. Contra the words on the statue of liberty that tell the rest of the world: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” contemporary americans and their political leaders want to shut the door in the faces of people seeking more social freedom and economic opportunity.
Lies and Damned Lies
While nationalism predisposes people to be against immigration, lies supplied by anti-immigrant politicians and activists solidify this opposition with plausible, if inaccurate, justifications. Americans are told that people sneaking into the country are hurting “legal” residents economically and socially by limiting the job opportunities of natives and draining the public coffers with excessive demands on government services. They are led to believe that immigrants are changing (for the worse) american culture with foreign languages and customs. And they have been advised to be very, very afraid.
But this is bullshit. While immigrants are accused of stealing american jobs, the fact is that immigrants are filling jobs americans either don’t want or can’t do. Although accused of consuming government “services” they are not entitled to, immigrants working in the united states, even those without official permission, pay taxes like other workers and deserve the same return for this money confiscated from them as do other taxpayers.
The concerns of the nativists about social or cultural change brought about by newcomers are as unfounded as their economic fears. Immigrants may retain some of the practices and beliefs they were accustomed to in their former country of residence, but gradually adopt the ways of living they see around them in their new land. And their children and grandchildren quickly become as “american” (for better or worse) as anyone else here. New immigrants may never become fluent in english, but their kids easily do. Meanwhile, many of the new ideas, customs, and cuisines that immigrants bring with them gradually meld into the mainstream such that chinese, greek, west indian, and italian restaurants and cultural festivals are common sights in american cities and are popular with people of all colors and ethnicities.
The fact that their fears of economic and “cultural” catastrophe are baseless doesn’t dissuade the bigots from their opposition to immigration. Neither does the clear historical record that everyone on this continent is descended from someone who came here from somewhere else. The ancestors of some current residents may have arrived long before the forebears of others, but that really doesn’t matter. The first immigrants may have come to a land devoid of people, but except for those first few individuals, everyone who immigrated to america was entering what modern people would consider some else’s country.
And immigrants now are a hell of lot more peaceable in their approach to the people already here than were the immigrants of the past. This continent, like all the others, has a bloody, nasty history of wars of conquests, slavery, rape, and attempts at extermination, perpetrated by evildoers of various skin colors. New arrivals tend to be peaceable folk looking for new homes and jobs and happy to share with their new neighbors. It is the height of hypocrisy for the descendants of invaders and conquerors to attempt to deny entry to other people who pose no threat to them.
The Liberal Nativists
Not all of those who oppose immigration are as baldly racist as others. Some claim that they are concerned about the effects that the newcomers’ migration to the united states will have on their former countries. They talk about brain drain and claim that skilled workers like computer experts and nurses coming to america should stay home because they are needed more there.
But this is just more nationalist crap. If the real concern is for the people in the philippines who need nursing care, or folks in india who could benefit from a home-grown high tech industry, then it would make sense for these concerned americans, usually nurses and techies who are actually worried about competition for jobs in the united states, to offer their own services in these places under some sort of exchange program. Instead they contend that skilled workers in other countries owe “their” people something and therefore shouldn’t seek to better their own economic and social conditions by moving to the west.
There surely are poor and needy people in other countries, exponentially more in fact than in the united states. But the presumption that others born in their country should be forced to stay and help them, while those in other countries bear no responsibility to end these people’s suffering, is nationalism pure and simple. Those opposed to immigration apparently believe that if you’re a nurse who was born in the philippines, you deserve to be a captive there, while one born in the united states, through no action on their own part, should be free to stay here and live a life of comparative luxury. For these nativists, an accident of birth should determine where and how you have to live your life.
The real issue here is not concern for the disadvantaged in other countries, but a desire to maintain a smaller pool of “professionals” in the united states. If there were freer entry of trained technicians and health care workers into this country, the artificial shortage of these workers would become less acute, thus putting downward pressure on wages and working conditions in these occupations. Although an approach of organizing newly-arrived workers into unions could effectively counter the potential adverse economic consequences of a larger supply of labor, by and large skilled workers, including even unionized nurses, have decided that pressuring politicians to limit immigration requires a lot less effort, and plays better to prevailing prejudices, than does the hard work of building unions. Their worries about those “left behind” by migrants is simply a mask for protectionism.
A Libertarian Approach to Immigration
Anarchists reject the very concept of borders and countries. They are merely tools to enable groups of economically and socially dominant people to control populations in order to maintain their own power and wealth. The idea of nationalism which nation-states promote breeds hatred, suspicion, mistrust, and racism. It encourages people to identify with and support their enemies, the political and corporate bosses who rob and bully them. It leads them to reject alliances and cooperation with others who share similar interests simply because they are foreigners and therefore suspect.
It’s a convenient trick that has worked for millennia. And it is meeting the needs of the american business and government elites once again, as people are distracted from real problems like war and diminishing personal freedom and instead getting wound up about the fake problem of immigration. People in this country are angry about inadequate wages, high taxes, shitty schools, unemployment, and expensive health care. But instead of seeing that their rulers’ insatiable desire for wealth and fetish for controlling others are to blame, they instead turn on would-be immigrants who did not cause these problems and suffer from them even more severely than do citizens.
Nationalism is an irrational, bigoted way of thinking that serves only those who wish to dominate others and works to the disadvantage of regular folk both here and abroad. If people reject this ideology, and with it the nations and governments that promote it, they might instead see themselves as individuals who share concerns and interests with similarly situated people all over the world. Then perhaps they would ignore the borders, tear down the walls and fences created by various governments, and welcome new friends and neighbors from other places. National boundaries serve only to restrict our vision and rein in our desires and activities, making it all the easier for our masters to plunder us.