Commentary No. 90, June 1, 2002
Immigrants aren't very popular these days, especially in countries that are wealthy. In North America, western Europe, and Australasia, the local residents tend to think three things about immigrants: 1) They have come primarily in order to improve their economic situation. 2) They lower the income levels of those already there both by accepting work at lower rates of pay and by obtaining benefits from the state's provisions for welfare assistance. 3) They constitute social "problems," either because they are burdens on others or because they are more likely to be involved in minor and major crimes or because they insist on retaining their customs and fail to "assimilate" into the countries to which they come.
Of course, all three statements are largely true. Of course, the major motive of immigrants is to improve their economic situation. Of course, they will accept jobs at lower rates of pay, especially when they first come. And since, as a result, they are poorer on the whole than the prior residents of a country, they are more like to seek various kinds of public and private assistance. And of course they pose "problems" to the country into which they come.
The question really is, so what? First of all, immigrants cannot get into countries, legally or illegally, without a good deal of connivance on the part of those already there. So they must serve some function for those already there. And we know what these functions are. They are willing to take jobs which are necessary for the functioning of the economy but which those already there are reluctant to take. These are not merely the unpleasant jobs at the unskilled end of the work force. These include the jobs of professionals. The medical structures of most rich countries today would be in major turmoil if one were to eliminate all the immigrant medical personnel (not only nurses but doctors as well).
Furthermore, since almost all rich countries today have a skewed demographic curve, in which those over 65 are an ever-increasing percentage of the population, those already there would not be able to enjoy the pensions they now enjoy were it not for the immigrants (ages 18-65) who expand the contributing base of these pensions funds. We know that, in the next 25 years, if the number of annual immigrants does not go up by something like fourfold, there will be drastic cutbacks circa 2025. As for "problems," problems are what we define as problems.
Still, we see the constant use of the immigrant scare by rightwing populist movements. These movements may be labeled as "extremist" and not get more than 20% of the vote (more than 20%? is not 20% already very high?), but the use of such demagoguery forces centrist politicians ever further to the right on these issues.
So we have a curious political seesaw constantly going on. The wealthy states regularly enact more and more barriers to entry (legal and illegal). And the immigrants keep coming, abetted by profit-seeking smugglers and employers who want cheaper labor. And on the sidelines are some relatively small groups who seek to alleviate the unjust and often cruel treatment of the immigrants. The net result is more and more immigration and more and more complaint about immigration.
Now, notice something. This description is the description of rich countries in relation to immigrants coming from poorer countries. Since there is an extended hierarchy of national wealth, the statements are not merely true about Mexicans coming to the United States, but about Guatemalans coming to Mexico or Nicaraguans coming to Costa Rica, or Filipinos coming to Hong Kong, or Thais coming to Japan, or Egyptians coming to Bahrain, or Mozambicans coming to South Africa. And so we could continue around the world.
Notice something else. This description does not fit the movement of persons from rich countries to poorer countries. Is there such movement? Less than there used to be. Colonization was such a movement, and new colonists are relatively rare these days for political reasons (Israel is just about the last of the truly colonizing nations). But there are still movements of wealthy individuals buying land in poorer zones (and thereby raising the level of land purchase costs and rents, often making it impossible for previous residents to remain where they are). But such movements are largely within state boundaries. So these persons are not called immigrants. With the creation of the European Union, this is beginning to happen in important ways across Europe.
There are few issues on which there is more hypocrisy than the issue of migration. The proponents of the market economy almost never extend it to the free movement of labor. And this for two reasons. It would be politically extremely unpopular in the wealthier zones. And it would undermine the worldwide system of differential labor costs, so crucial for maximizing worldwide profit levels. Still, the result is that, when the Soviet Union wouldn't allow people to emigrate freely, it was loudly denounced for actions contrary to basic human rights. But when the post-Communist regimes do allow people to emigrate freely, the wealthier countries immediately set up barriers against their entry.
What if we allowed water to seek its own level? What if we eliminated all barriers to movement, entry and exit, around the world? Would all of India emigrate to the United States, all of Bangladesh to Great Britain, all of China to Japan? Of course not. No more than, within the United States, does all of Mississippi emigrate to Connecticut, or within Great Britain, all of Northumberland emigrate to Sussex. For one thing, most people tend to prefer the place in which they grew up. They share the culture; they know the history; they have family ties.
Would all the cultures become hybrids? All the cultures already are. Take any major zone of Europe or Asia, and look at the waves of peoples that have traversed those lands in just the last thousand years, leaving the residue of their languages, their religions, their eating habits, and their world views. We all have got to relax seriously about the idea of people-movement. It's the one area in which laissez-faire might really work. We should remember that the original slogan was "laissez faire, laissez passer."
Within countries we see all the time such movement. And we know that the movement into a neighborhood of persons considered to be of lower social status often leads to the movement out by previous residents who think of themselves of higher social status. We may applaud this or deplore this but we seldom try to regulate this by forbidding movement into neighborhoods. What would be so terrible if we applied this principle to states?
Will the immigrants assimilate? Well no, not if one means that they will simply remake themselves as clones of the people into whose area they move. But would that be a virtue? All our states are already incredibly diverse, which is a plus not a minus. And a little more spice in the pot would probably only make things more tasty. The immigrants (and especially their children) will of course try to fit in with their neighbors. We all do. And the neighbors might even try to fit in with the new arrivals. It's called learning, and adapting.
Of course, this is one of those ideas that would only really work if everyone did it. If one country allowed free immigration but others did not, that country might really be swamped. But if everyone did it, my guess is that there would be little more worldwide movement than at present, that it would be more rational and less dangerous, and that it would arouse less opposition.
[Copyright by Immanuel Wallerstein. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to download, forward electronically or e-mail to others and to post this text on non-commercial community Internet sites, provided the essay remains intact and the copyright note is displayed. To translate this text, publish it in printed and/or other forms, including commercial Internet sites and excerpts, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org; fax: 1-607-777-4315.
These commentaries, published twice monthly, are intended to be reflections on the contemporary world scene, as seen
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