Alien Nation Review: The Economist, July 1995
July 15, 1995, 05:00 AM
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The Economist (US), July 15, 1995 v336 n7923 p65(2)  

Alien Nations.

© Economist Newspaper Ltd. (UK) 1995  

ALIEN NATION. By Peter Brimelow. Random House; 327 pages; $24.  

THE POLITICS OF IMMIGRATION IN WESTERN EUROPE. Edited by Martin Baldwin-Evans and Martin Schain. Frank Crass; 208 pages; Pounds 25 and $29.50.  

LIMITS OF CITIZENSHIP: MIGRANTS AND POSTNATIONAL MEMBERSHIP IN EUROPE. By Yasemin Nuhoglu Soysal. University of Chicago Press; 244 pages; $29.95. Distributed in Britain by John Wiley; Pounds 11.25  

WHO is a foreigner? And by what right does one come to settle in your country? Such questions may seem arcane compared with the harsh debates that increasingly surround the issue of immigration into the rich countries of the West. But not only do the answers help to explain why it happened; they also throw light on why it causes such resentment.  

The post-war influx has been different from earlier migrations. It has been dominated by people from the developing world, often with different ethnic—or racial—origins from their hosts. Immigrants are thus mo than they have usually been in the past, and in many cases their descendants will remain distinguishable from the rest of the population. Does this matter? It would be nice to think not. But in many count made of these racial and cultural differences.  

Why did the rich countries decide to take in so many people from poor ones? Peter Brimelow, an English-born American citizen and never one for understatement, opens his book with one answer: "There is a sense in which current immigration policy is Adolf Hitler`s posthumous revenge on America." That holds for parts of Europe too: Germany`s reluctance to shut the door on asylum seekers was influenced even more by the memory of the Holocaust, of the curse of racism and of the lives that might have been saved by more open doors.  

But the full tale is more complicated. In some instances the answer lies in a colonial past. Britain, France, Spain and Portugal all gave special rights of entry to the people of their former territories. Curbing those rights has involved a series of messy betrayals which, for liberals in Europe`s former colonial powers, have been the most painful aspect of the end of empire.  

Part of the explanation is lack of foresight. Few of the European governments which allowed or encouraged the import of labour gave much thought to the consequences. Most striking has been the impact of newcomers on Germany. Between the end of the second world war and the fall of the Berlin Wall, net immigration into West Germany totalled over 18m people. Yet, as Thomas Faist argues in an essay in "The Politics of Immigration in Western Europe", Germans clung to the idea that theirs was not a country of immigration. The German idea of citizenship as a right associated with blood, not place of birth, delayed the realisation that the "guest-workers" were not going home but were raising children and grandchildren in Germany. Now, in a debate with echoes of the tensions between America`s poor blacks and its Asian newcomers, east Germans— citizens by birthright—resentfully find that they are poorer than the guest-workers` children.  

But the country whose sense of identity is most challenged by third-world immigration is the United States. Mr Brimelow`s diatribe against America`s 1965 Immigration Act (lots of block capitals, rows of exclamation marks, interjections and italics) has the quality of an embarrassing dinner-party guest—boorish, noisy and loquacious but also, maddeningly, often right. He refuses to shut up when he is reminded by his critics that all Americans except the Indians are descendants of immigrants. "My grandfather was allowed in," runs the refrain, "so why not Manuel`s and Chung`s?"  

American hospitality  

Nonetheless, as doors have slammed shut in other rich countries, America`s open door has appeared increasingly eccentric. The United States now takes almost half the legal immigrants going to the developed world. Some Republicans have begun to talk like Europe`s right-wing populists. In June a panel on immigration reform appointed by Congress gingerly recommended a cut in the numbers allowed in.  

Mr Brimelow worries as much about the quality as the quantity of immigrants. The 1965 act, he complains, dropped the principle of preference for immigrants from northern and western Europe and gave priority to "family reunification" rather than "skills". In 1968-93, 85% of legal immigrants came from the developing world; by 1993, 95% of the people applying for immigrant visas gave family reunification as the grounds.  

Although much of the argument for immigration invigorating effect on the economy, the United States makes no effort to select the people most likely to contribute to national prosperity. Moreover, because immigrants have prompt access to welfare benefits, "the failures are no longer winnowed out"; far fewer of them return home than during the previous wave of immigration early this century. Immigrants are as likely to be in jail or on welfare as Americans. "What`s the point of immigrants who are no better than we are?" Mr Brimelow thunders.  

He also raises a deeper question: whose rights are greater? Those of the foreigner to come to the United States? Or those of Americans to choose their future fellow citizens? The answer is explored in Yasemin Nuhoglu Soysal`s intelligent book. She analyses the way immigration has altered the concept of citizenship. In the early days, immigrants were either potential citizens and integrated rapidly into the political culture of the host country, or foreigners and expected to go home.   

Today, she argues, immigrants are no longer either trainee citizens or dispensable aliens. They enjoy many rights by virtue of their mere presence in a country: to welfare, to education, to be taught in their own language or to appeal against deportation. Such economic and social rights tend to be granted in advance of, and independently of, the political rights of citizenship.  

Behind this approach lies an altered view of the importance of the nation state. No longer are individual rights seen as indivisible from the rights of citizenship. Rights are increasingly defined in universal terms: not just in a growing array of international conventions but also in national debates about immigration. Thus the French constitutional council, ruling against laws restricting family reunification in 1993, argued that "foreigners are not French, but they are human beings". Such arguments extend even to what would once have been the core of citizenship. "Voting rights are human rights," claimed the 1990 migrants` voting-rights campaign in Austria.  

Concepts of human rights, however, are rarely absolute. The right to choose an abode, if ever it existed, is now gone. Whatever desirability of the free movement of labour, it will not accompany the free movement of goods. The rich world resounds with the clang of closing gates. In Britain, immigration officials stand at the doors of some disembarking aircraft, checking passengers` passports. Along the Mexican border with the United States, searchlights and barbed wire struggle against a nightly tide of illegals.  

The rich countries see only dimly the impact on their complex economies and civil rights of the measures that they will need to take if they are to keep out all those who want to come and join them. Smuggling human beings is already just as lucrative as smuggling weapons or drugs. How to curb without curbing trade? How to discover illegals who have made it across the border without constant police checks on other citizens? How can democracies keep out desperate Chinese or Albanians or Vietnamese without using the same lethal devices that dictatorships use to keep their people in? The cost of persuading Europeans and Americans to accept those who have come may be to put the rights of citizens clearly before the rights of those who still want to come. Only by rebuilding some of the old concepts of citizenship may Europe and America fully come to terms with, and learn to value, the multi-coloured, multi-ethnic societies they have unthinkingly created.