Friday

15th Nov 2019

What can the EU learn from the US on immigration?

  • The US-Mexico border is the busiest in the world (Photo: Gareth Harfoot)

The US took in about 70,000 UN-registered refugees last year - the same as the rest of the world combined.

Most came from the Arab world, Africa, and South-East Asia. Some came from the Western Balkans and Ukraine.

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  • ‘If you build a 10-foot wall, they’ll bring an 11-foot ladder’ (Photo: Bill Morrow)

New Hampshire, a small, well-to-do state, takes in the most per capita. Its main city, Manchester, hosts 65 languages.

Meanwhile, the US border with Mexico is 3,145km-long and sees 10 million crossings a day. Many of the estimated 11 million illegals inside the US are Mexican visa-overstayers.

Like Bulgaria and Greece, the US has fences. The one in California was modelled on the Berlin Wall.

Like the EU, though on a much smaller scale, people try to sneak in by boat.

For their part, EU leaders, who met last week after an incident in which 800 people drowned in the Mediterranean, said they’ll “mobilise all efforts … to prevent further loss of life at sea and to tackle the root causes of the human emergency we face”.

The boats will keep coming, however.

The UN says there are more displaced people now than at any moment since WWII.

At the same time, ageing populations in the West and growing populations in Africa and Asia are pushing the world into uncharted territory in demographic terms.

The EU crisis also has an internal dimension.

Anti-immigrant feeling is fuelling the rise of far-right groups.

There are torch-lit anti-migrant marches in Germany. Immigration is central to the UK’s in/out EU debate and it’ll be central to the National Front’s attempt to win power in France in 2017 - an existential threat to the Union.

Walls don’t work

The EU’s main decision, last week, was to try to sink migrant smugglers’ boats before they’re used, instead of reforming the bloc’s migration laws.

It’s an approach which amounts to using the Mediterranean Sea as a wall around Europe.

But from the US experience, fences don’t work.

It might seem strange to compare the US-Mexico border to the EU’s southern coast.

But it’s just as long. Its deserts are dangerous and it also has human traffickers. Mexican gangs charge people up to $3,000 to go through a tunnel or to drive round the wall in a jeep.

The California fence is imposing: It has three layers of metal and concrete, ground sensors, infra-red CCTV, and surveillance drones.

But it’s just 300km long.

David Shirk, a migration expert at the University of San Diego, told EUobserver: “There’s political theatre in building walls. But all it’s done is to push people further east, into the deserts, where a handful of them die each year”.

He said strict border control means people who get in illegaly are more likely to stay and to bring in families than to risk trips home.

But another model is “circular migration” - giving short-term work visas so that people can visit, earn some money, and go back when they’re done.

A contact from the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a San Diego-based NGO, who asked not to be named, added: “We’ve got a saying: ‘If you build a 10-foot wall, they’ll bring an 11-foot ladder’.”

“How can you build a fence around Europe? It’s impossible. The EU doesn’t have a comprehensive immigration policy. But ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ is no use when a boat capsizes and you’ve to get people out of the water”.

In terms of boat migrants, he pointed to Vietnam in the 1970s and 1980s as a model.

He said almost half of Vietnamese boat migrants used to die trying to get to the Philippines and onward to the US.

“What we did is negotiate what we called the ‘orderly deportation programme’ with Saigon. We intercepted people who wanted to go and we helped them to do it. We didn’t want them to risk their lives. It was far from perfect, but it stopped a lot of boats from going to sea … Have they heard about this in Europe?”.

Walls aside, the US does other things wrong.

It doesn’t count people who leave the country so it doesn’t know how many overstayers it has.

It gives free rein to companies to prey on illegals as cheap labour.

It also causes problems for Mexico by deporting people in a disorderly way.

Shirk said US authorities send bus-fulls of Mexican illegals, most of whom are gang members or who were caught drink driving, to Tijuana without notifying Tijuana police, in a practice which aggravates homelessness and petty crime.

Give them a break

What the US does do well is break down social barriers and help migrants to stand on their own feet.

Pat Long, a local councillor in Manchester, New Hampshire, helps resettle refugees because, he told this website, he grew up in an orphanage and he knows “the system, what it’s like to be a second-class person”.

He said the UN programme initially caused shock.

“We’ve got Bosnians, people from Congo, Sudan, Somalia, Iran. Four or five years ago, when we first got Muslims, people were like: ‘It’s the end of the fucking world’. But now we’re building a mosque”.

He said two things help: to tell people’s stories and to let them earn a living.

“I know this Bosnian guy, he used to call skulls ‘black tomatoes’. All he had from his father was a skull with a hole in it. I know a Somalian man who saw his children decapitated”, Long noted.

“Americans think: ‘We’re bringing them out of a bad situation’. But we don’t know what bad is. These are stories that Americans need to hear. Let’s give them a break”.

The first wave of refugees used to get a place to stay and a bag of food.

Now they get $9,000 per person in start-up money and a green card (permission to work).

“I embarrass them [resettlement critics]. I bring immigrants into town hall meetings so they can say: ‘Look, I own my own home. I own a business and I love the city of Manchester’. Now, tell me you don’t want people who start businesses and who pay taxes.”

Back in San Diego, Paul Yang, a police sergeant who works with refugees, said communication is vital.

Yang directs a police unit which wears badges and uniforms, but which doesn’t carry guns or have powers of arrest.

Its job is to explain why some folk customs, for instance, arranged marriage of children by Asian families, are illegal in the US, and to hear migrants’ gripes. They’re hired from migrant ethnic groups so that they speak the language, including minority languages, such as hmong, a dialect in Laos.

He also said job opportunities are vital.

At first, migrants cluster - for instance, Somalians in the City Heights district of San Diego, or Arabs in El Cojon - in what could cause social tension. But the wealthier they get, the more they filter out.

The IRC noted that, in Europe, the state of the Greek and the Italian economies is one problem.

But another one is policy. “In Germany, they’re saying Syrians are there temporarily, so if they’re not allowed to integrate, the pressure will rise", the IRC contact said.

John Skrentny, a scholar of migration at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD), said: “I was in Germany and they need IT developers. We [in the US] don’t care where you’re from. But German employers wanted Europeans from Spain, Poland, Bulgaria, or Romania. I said: ‘What about Asians?’ They said: ‘We’re not ready for that’.”

The IRC contact added that welfare isn’t a good substitute.

“I know Somalians who’ve gone to Sweden. They say: ‘If you make it there and you’re in the system, you don’t have to work another day in your life because you can live off benefits’.”

“You have to manage expectations”, he noted.

“In the US, people have to make it on their own. It’s not like we’re opening the doors to the kingdom and everything is handed to you”.

Don’t create demons

There’s another side to the coin.

California was, to begin with, ethnically diverse. New Hampshire is less so, but US history makes US society more open to migrants than the EU, a club of old nations with old traditions.

For the UCSD’s Skrentny, policy makers should be less dismissive of locals’ concerns.

He said there are three ways of looking at immigration: human rights; economics; and communities.

The first one says everybody should be treated with dignity and migrants have the same rights as natives.

The second one is utilitarian: “You ask: ‘Is it good or bad for the economy?’ In terms of ageing populations, new consumers. But you don’t ask who’s getting screwed: lower wages; erosion of trade unions; migrant exploitation”.

“We had legal cases in the US on whether factory workers have a right to pee, because it messes up the production line”.

The third point of view is hard. But if you ignore it, you risk helping the National Front or similar parties.

“The community perspective is native people’s concerns, for instance on rule of law. People in Europe, who see minarets go up, say: ‘What the hell is that? It’s not the Switzerland I know’. They feel a sense of loss and mistrust: ‘We can’t trust them. They’re strangers’,” Skrentny said.

“People suspect that political refugees are economic migrants”.

He noted the US and EU elite come from a “Davos culture”, referring to the yearly meeting of CEOs, politicians, and media at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland.

“They have cosmopolitan values, but the rest of the world isn’t like that … It’s easy to dismiss people as racists. But often they just lack better language to express their sense of loss”, he said.

“They feel powerless when they’re told they’re xenophobes. That’s what creates far-right votes”.

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