H.D.S. Greenway

Immigration anxieties traverse the Atlantic

By H.D.S. Greenway
Globe Columnist / May 4, 2010

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IT IS hard to say how much damage Prime Minister Gordon Brown did himself and his Labor Party when he called a prospective voter bigoted just before Britain’s general election tomorrow. His excuse was that he didn’t know he was talking on an open mike. Brown is finding out that crow is an acquired taste.

It is also hard to say how much damage the state of Arizona has done itself with its largest trading partner, Mexico, with its draconian new law tasking police with demanding proof of citizenship, or how the Republican Party will fare in the coming years if it cannot attract votes from Hispanics, America’s fastest growing ethnic group. For 65-year-old Gillian Duffy of Rochdale in the English midlands, the problem is mostly legal immigrants from the continent. “All those Eastern Europeans that are coming in,’’ she said. “Where are they coming in from?’’

For Arizonans the problem is illegal Mexicans.

There are many liberal-minded Americans calling the Republican-led Legislature in Arizona, and its Republican governor, Jan Brewer, bigoted, but that just muddies the waters of a serious and complicated issue. Immigrants can be very beneficial to any country, bringing in new blood and new talent — especially in countries where without them birth rates would be dangerously falling.

But immigrants can also be destabilizing if immigration has been too fast and unregulated. The fear that many people such as Gillian Duffy and the Arizona legislators have of being overrun by illegal immigrants in their own land is a natural one. It solves nothing to sneer. Human beings are essentially tribal, forming families, clans, as well as ethnic and religious groupings. When times are good there is more open-mindedness, but when hard times create economic hardship and competition for jobs, barriers start to go up.

Immigrants often fill a job vacuum. Restaurateurs have told me that they would go out of business were it not for immigrants from Mexico and Central America — many of them illegal. An English hotelier once told me that she couldn’t keep her hotels open were it not for the large number of Poles who were then coming into England looking for work. But the recession has caused growing resentments as the employment pool narrows.

Many Britons, as well as other Europeans, also see a threat to their culture — especially by Muslim immigrants from Africa and Asia. A perfect example is the recent Swiss referendum that banned minarets from the Swiss countryside. Mosques were not banned. It was the minaret, the visible symbol of an alien culture, that took the hit.

Europeans have a couple thousand years of national cultures to worry about, while here in America our culture comes from so many sources that there is less of a perceived threat from foreigners. There was a time, a century ago, when the ruling classes were mostly made up of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, but the WASP ascendancy has long since waned. There was a day when all the justices on the Supreme Court were Protestants, but now the last Protestant is resigning.

Europeans and Americans share the same recession anxieties. They can no longer take an assured future for granted. I remember a Harvard political scientist, Andrei Markovits, telling me years ago that “the smell of your neighbor’s curry is enticing and wonderful as long as you’re OK. If you are not OK, if you feel threatened, you may think it’s smelly and disgusting and you want to beat the guy up.’’

I don’t know what Gillian Duffy felt about Eastern European cooking, but I know she feels threatened, and so do many Americans. The trick for any society is not to mock those fears, but to have effective rules that can control immigration — “Keep the back door locked so that you can more effectively keep the front door open,’’ runs the old cliché. The Arizonians aren’t wrong to say that federal immigration policies and reforms have failed them.

The other thing societies must do is make sure that people aren’t being beaten up because someone doesn’t like the smell of their curry, which is what the Arizona law comes dangerously close to allowing.

H.D.S. Greenway’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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