Immigrant blame game damaging our societies
During Ronald Reagan’s final speech as US president, he said: “We draw our people, our strength, from every country and every corner of the world.” That “The Gipper” was spot on was perhaps not even worthy of comment back in the late 1980s. It was a statement of obvious truth — but, today more than ever, this has become a contentious truth.
Migration is as old as humanity and has shaped the entirety of human history. Humans colonized new lands but never stopped moving; neither did ideas, beliefs, languages and culture. All the great civilizations and empires were a glorious fusion, a fertile mix of these processes. The Greek, Roman, Persian, Islamic and British empires, just like the US, were all multicultural societies not just benefiting from, but reliant on, immigration.
So why, in 2019, are immigrants fast becoming the lowest of the low; the great new threat that has to be controlled or even stopped altogether? No, this is not the first time that states have sought to restrict immigration, but the toxic discourse around immigrants is truly alarming. Rarely is anything positive attributed to them despite their crucial role in every single first-world economy and, typically, immigrants are the easy first-choice target for anything going wrong. Muslim immigrants are doubly vulnerable as they are seen as a “terrorist threat,” even though research shows that every act of terrorism in the US since 9/11 has been committedby a citizen or legal resident. The threat is not foreign, as the far right likes to portray, but the immigrant gets blamed anyway.
The two giant magnets for migrants are the US and the EU. The southern borders of these advanced, first-world economies are under constant pressure and populist politicians are tapping into the anti-immigrant zeitgeist with relish. Immigrants risk their lives in frightening numbers. Politicians in receiving states risk all by not opposing them.
The heartbreaking image of the drowned father and daughter in the Rio Grande did not break everyone’s hearts.
Africans are traveling in record numbers to South America to try to cross over into the US. Official Mexican figuresindicate that the numbers tripled in the first four months of 2019. Few, if any, want to stay in Mexico as, not surprisingly, few speak Spanish. After crossing numerous international borders, they cross over into the US, far from being cowed by the hostile rhetoric of President Donald Trump, perhaps even encouraged by it. Many see this as perhaps their last opportunity to sneak in before the border is locked down or becomes too hard to break through. As the president tweeted recently: “If illegal immigrants are unhappy with the conditions in the quickly built or refitted detentions centers, just tell them not to come. All problems solved!”
Last autumn, Trump, while in election scare mode, was warning of a caravan of 7,500 immigrants coming up through Central America, with “unknown Middle Easterners” among them. Strangely enough, once the election season was over, Trump barely referred to this again.
Yet the conditions at detention centers in the south are fast becoming a central issue in American politics. Trump believes conditions are acceptable, the Democrats are fuming. The high-profile New York congresswoman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez visited these centers, which she referred to as “concentration camps.” She also claimed officers had told Cuban refugee women in cells to drink “out of toilets.”
The heartbreaking image of the drowned father and daughter in the Rio Grande did not break everyone’s hearts, even if many harked back to the picture of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian Kurd washed up on a Turkish beach in September 2015. Customs and Border Protection officers should also be under scrutiny after a secret Facebook groupwas revealed, with 9,500 alleged officers as members. Posts ranted about visiting Latina members of Congress, describing them as “scum buckets.”
The Mediterranean crossings are similarly lethal, with more than 5,000 dying in 2016 alone, the worst year in recent history. This is not helped by the position of the current Italian government. With the anti-immigrant populist Matteo Salvini as interior minister, Italy has refused to allow rescue boats to dock at its ports. Salvini cares not one jot how terrifying and risky the situation is in Libya. One boat, “Alex,” carrying 41 rescued migrants, was deniedthe right to dock at Lampedusa despite fears for their lives. But, in the end, the vessel did dock and the fate of those involved is to be determined.
Last week, a nighttime aerial bombardment of an African migrant center killed at least 53 at Tajoura east of Tripoli in Libya. It reinforces the argument that migrants in Libya are just not safe and exactly why they should not be sent back there. And what does it say about the international tolerance for such detention camps in Libya, where thousands are held in misery and often on the front line?
Where Italy and Greece do have a strong case is the pathetic and lame response of other EU states, which resist any attempt to honor their commitments on burden sharing. Trump also has a point about the levels of illegal immigration into the US, which he hopes will return him to the White House in 2020.
Yet none of this excuses the racist and xenophobic discourse about immigrants or the way they are being treated. Worse, few differentiate between migrants and refugees, those fleeing conflicts. Our societies are the poorer for putting up walls, physical and psychological. We need to explore other means of resolving these crises without having to resort to inhuman incarceration or refusing to help save the lives of innocent people.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Twitter: @Doylech