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Nigel Harris on border controls and state power today
The politics of immigration

June 9, 2006 | Page 4

NIGEL HARRIS is a London-based economist, author and activist specializing on issues of development and immigration. His books include The End of the Third World, The Return of Cosmopolitan Capitalism and, on immigration, The New Untouchables: Immigration and the New World Worker and Thinking the Unthinkable: The Immigration Myth Exposed. He also chaired a recent inquiry on the impact of immigration in Britain for the Royal Society of the Arts. The commission's report is available at thersa.org.

Harris was interviewed by LEE SUSTAR on the role of immigration in world politics today.

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ATTACKS ON immigrants have become increasingly central to politics in a variety of advanced countries--the U.S., Britain, France, Denmark and elsewhere. Why, and why now?

"INCREASINGLY?" Compared to when? Here in Britain, the situation is not comparable to the anti-immigrant backlash of the 1960s.

The last ugly upsurge came in 1999-2000, when an increase in asylum seekers turned into a major national crisis. This was exaggerated by government policy to disperse asylum seekers away from London, which overburdened ill-equipped facilities elsewhere. Asylum seekers, moreover, are forbidden to work and starved as a "disincentive" to come to the UK.

The difference now is that the intelligentsia is increasingly hostile to immigration as the spearhead of globalization and the resulting loss of national identity. This is an existential crisis for them. It's not about the jobs of low-paid workers.

Certainly, high rates of unemployment are used as a political justification for attacks on immigrants. This is true, for example, in France and Germany, especially in the former East Germany where neo-Nazis are strongest.

But immigration has also become an issue in Britain, which has had exceptionally high rates of employment since 1997 and severe labor shortages.

ARE THE patterns of immigration we see today in the era of globalization qualitatively different than those of the 19th and 20th centuries?

YES, I believe so. Immigration today is not about movement from a situation of immobility in country A to immobility in country B--that is, a transfer of population between stable nationalities. Rather, it is about the right to freely circulate between countries as one wishes.

We see the emergence of transnational social groups and families manipulating nationalities as is convenient when they travel, without any fixed or exclusive national identification.

For instance, there is Azim, who was born to a U.S. family that moved to Canada. His father was born in Kenya to a grandfather who was born in India. Azim's mother was born in Tanzania to a grandfather born in Pakistan. So Azim can claim at least six different nationalities.

There are also transnational families--for example, a Nigerian immigrant in Durban, South Africa, who has one brother working as an engineer in the U.S., a second as medical doctor in the UK. Of course, Jewish families have long had the same experience. A Mexican family I know has relatives in Odessa, Pittsburgh, Mexico City and Santiago de Chile.

The growth of these trends has led to the panic of the state over a loss of control over the population.

HOW HAS economic growth (or lack of it) shaped immigration to the advanced countries?

MIGRATION IS always about movement to work because of the difference between where the population is living and where employment is being created. All this is mediated by the nature of labor demand--by skill, gender, age, etc.

Currently, only literate workers are required by major employers, so the poorest of the world don't migrate internationally.

This is true, in fact, of the rural Mexicans who emigrate. Despite the stereotypes in the U.S., Mexican immigrants usually come from middle-income rural families with higher-than-average education in the place of origin. By contrast, poor Mexican migrants move seasonally within Mexico, often to Sonora and Sinaloa for harvesting, or to the cities.

Some of the poor may move to Tijuana and then go on to San Diego or Los Angeles. But the poor don't normally have the cash--or the ability to borrow it--that's necessary to emigrate.

Of course, when they reach their destination, immigrants are the lowest of the low. If people in the U.S. think these immigrants are the poorest Mexicans, it's because they have little idea of just how poor the poorest really are.

The same pattern is true of immigration to Western Europe. There are very few people emigrating from the poorest countries of Africa, but many who emigrate from middle-income countries with universal or near-universal primary education. Moreover, increasing economic growth usually increases emigration--such as South Koreans and, more recently, the Chinese, who move to America.

Most immigrants want to come, work and return home. But the stupidity of immigration controls forces them to settle in order to keep access to work. So they are forced into the misery of permanent exile.

THERE IS also substantial immigration between poor countries, though this is ignored in the Western media. Are the underlying economic dynamics the same?

EVERYWHERE, CROOKED politicians need immigrant labor to keep the economy going, but use foreigners as scapegoats to secure own power--to affirm xenophobia and loyalty of native-born to state.

THE RIGHT claims that immigrants drain government welfare budgets. Is there any truth to these arguments?

NO. BASICALLY, social security programs tax those in the active aged groups (whether native born or immigrant, legal and irregular) and subsidize those in dependent age groups (the young and the aged). Thus, immigrants in active age groups subsidize the rest--including the native born.

Insofar as immigrants have kids and need remedial language training, there is a higher per capita cost, although this is still very small. Also, immigrants employed in dangerous jobs, such as construction, draw more on health care than average. Some governments--such as here, in the UK--forbid asylum seekers from working, so they are forced to live on social security.

In the U.S., there is a special issue. The federal government collects taxes, but local governments are obliged to pay for immigrants. This is not a problem of immigration, but of government finances.

But usually, governments make it very difficult for immigrants to draw on social security. It's usually impossible (or too dangerous) for undocumented immigrants to receive benefits, even though they pay into social security funds like the rest. So they are robbed.

IN RECENT years, anti-immigrant politics have focused on the supposed inability of more recent immigrants to Western countries to assimilate. What, in fact, is going on?

THIS IS always the case made by the ultra-right. In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler said that Jews will never assimilate into German society, because they are part of a world conspiracy to take over. This was despite the massive contribution of German Jews to German culture and science, from Einstein to Freud, and a remarkable record of assimilation.

The real problem is that the xenophobia of the native born excludes foreigners--so the allegation that they will not assimilate becomes self-fulfilling prophecy: "We're going to make sure they will not be allowed to assimilate!"

THE RISE of anti-immigrant politics in the West is leading to draconian border controls. At the same time, the economy continues to rely on both skilled and unskilled immigrant labor. How will this contradiction play out?

THERE HAVE been a large number of econometric studies of the wage effects of an increase in immigration to a given locality. Immigration has either been identified as having no effect, or relatively very small effects. And where effects have been identified, they have affected earlier cohorts of immigrants rather than the native born.

Generally, low-skilled immigrants and low-skilled native born--high school dropouts, in U.S. terms--do different jobs in different sectors, so they do not compete. But at other levels--among doctors, nurses and information technology specialists--immigrants and the native born do compete.

Overall, however, immigrants do jobs the native born have long since abandoned, because the pay is too low, or the working conditions are bad, as in agriculture and domestic labor.

George Borjas of Harvard University has argued that these econometric studies do not pick up the real effects of immigration on the native born, because the native born have already moved out of those jobs or migrated out of those localities. He correlated the native born out-migration from California with the immigration of Mexican irregulars.

But it seems the native born out-migration was relatively high skilled, so that case fell apart. His studies have shown larger negative effects of immigration on national, not local, wage levels. However, his findings are generally not accepted.

What is generally accepted is that immigration reduces "wage pressure"--that is, in a tight labor market, an expansion of the labor supply through immigration reduces the rate of increase of wages. But it doesn't reduce wages. You had the same effect with the much more massive entry of women into the labor force in the 1950s and 1960s. Since they were native born, the impact didn't fuel xenophobia.

Anyway, in an economy as big as that of the U.S., immigration--legal and illegal--is so tiny that it cannot have big effects, either negative or positive. Certainly, the effects are too small to be confidently measured.

There is a contradiction between the needs of globalizing the economy--the integration into a world labor market and a circulating global labor force--and the xenophobic requirements of the old nation-state, with its immobile citizenry.

But increasing controls on immigration leads to: one, increasing off-shoring of production, which is the other side of the coin to immigration; two, increasing clandestine immigration, with its underground economy and loss of state control and the undermining of native-born pay and working conditions. The world economy will win in this contest--but in the process create an increasingly brutal labor regime.

DOES THE immigrant rights movement in the U.S. have similarities to the immigrant movements in Europe?

NO, OTHER than fighting back. The local specifics are crucial. So the most magnificent fightback in the U.S. is centrally related to a congressional bill and its proposed "felonization" of immigrants.

But even if the movement begins specifically, it can become generalized. The reaction of irregular immigrants in Europe to American events becomes decisive.

The U.S. events begin a third great wave of democratization in the world. The first was for national power in Europe in the 19th century; the second was for the end of empire--the Third World revolution. Today's movement is for freedom from the parasitic state--an affirmation of a global workers' identity and a demand for the freedom to move as they wish.

WHAT ARE the relationships, in general, to the labor movement and the left?

THE LEFT and the labor movement too often remain trapped in a nationalist opposition to globalization, which is fundamentally reactionary. The best people in NGOs approach the revolt without the ideological blinkers of the defense of national power.

YOU HAVE advocated opening the borders to immigration. How do you respond to the criticism that this would lead to the rich countries being "swamped" with immigrants?

WHY IS New York not swamped by everybody moving there? Why can we trust natives to make sensible decisions, but not foreigners?

The key thing to understand is that controls on immigration always exist to entrench state control over the population. This is true whether we are speaking of external controls on migration, or internal ones--such as in Tsarist and Soviet Russia, medieval France, Prussia and Japan, or "Communist" China up to 1978.

These controls come at the cost of economic growth and the welfare of the population. So the demand for free circulation of the world's population is a powerful weapon in undermining the parasitic, oppressive state and moving to a universal democracy.

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