Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Wallerstein on immigration

Commentary No. 182, April 1, 2006
"Immigration: Backlash to the Backlash?"

The immigration story in the modern world is now a long, repetitive one. People migrate, legally or illegally, for obvious reasons. Economic betterment and escape from persecution are the two principal ones. They migrate where they can, and where economic and political prospects for them are best. This is a major world process, especially if one adds in the migration from rural areas to urban ones within state boundaries.

The recipient areas/countries have always been ambivalent about these migrants. On the one hand, they may fill needs for additional labor, either at the relatively unskilled level or in particular, skilled niches. On the other hand, migrants bring in cultural habits that are different from those of the area to which they migrate and sometimes are reluctant to shed these habits. So, quite frequently in the receiving places, there is a backlash. Migrants are accused of many sins. Some are economic, such as taking away jobs from the natives population in the place or driving down rates of remuneration. Some are social, such as engaging in cultural practices that are seen as abhorrent by the "natives" or increasing the crime rate.

When the world or local situation is one of increased unemployment in general because of stagnation in the world-economy, the presumed sins become more of a public issue and there is a popular (or populist) pressure to enact legislation that will limit entry to the area/country somehow, criminalize illegal migration, and somehow expel the migrants (or large portions of them).

This is occurring dramatically now in the United States, but not in the United States alone. This backlash has been a political phenomenon of some importance in much of Europe, and even in various receiving zones in the rest of the world, such as South Africa, for example. When this occurs, as now in the United States, the two sides are easy to discern. Those in favor of stringent state action against migrants (and not only against illegal migrants) express themselves in xenophobic language, and get support based on a generalized sense of economic and social insecurity in the working and middle classes. This group tends to favor building walls and expulsions of various kinds. They usually are located in more conservative political forces but attract support from some groups that normally support parties more on the left.

Those opposed to stringent state action are in fact two quite different groups. There are the business elites who welcome migrants in the belief that this enables them to keep wage rates down. And to some extent they are right. They thus want migrants to have the right to enter and to work. But they are not anxious that migrants have political rights, which would enable them to fight for higher remuneration. The second group is quite the opposite. It is composed of the targeted groups plus those on the left who favor increasing, not decreasing, social and political rights for the migrants.

As I noted, this is an old story in the modern world. What may be different today is that there is beginning to be a backlash to the backlash. In France, last November, there was an important "rebellion of the underclass" - youths in the ghettos rising up to demand their place in the sun (see Commentary No. 174, Dec. 1, 2005: "The French Riots: Rebellion of the Underclass"). While the rebellion shook the government, which could only contain it after one month of effort, it did not rouse widespread support among the French left, who observed it but did not join it. In the United States, the passage of very repressive legislation by the House of Representatives stimulated the largest demonstration that has ever occurred on this issue. A half million Latinos marched in Los Angeles (and smaller numbers in other cities) in protest. So far, the U.S. left has observed it but has not joined it.

But then, look at what happened in France in March this year. The government introduced a measure without consulting anyone enacting the so-called Contrat Première Embauche (CPE or "First Employment Contract"), authorizing enterprises to hire youth under 26 and permitting them to fire them without explanation within the first two years of employment. This created an important exception to the droit du travail (right to a job), a major conquest of French workers in the post-1945 years. From the government's point of view, this was in part a response to the November rebellion, one of whose complaints was the extremely high unemployment rate of the youth in the ghettos. But, of course, easing the droit du travail has long been a major demand of the employers' association (MEDEF), and this law was seen by them (as some acknowledged publicly) as a first step in eliminating altogether the employment guarantees in general.As soon as the CPE was enacted, there was a major reaction - from the students, from the trade-unions, and yes, from the ghettos. The public demonstrations have been massive. The political struggle is in progress, but it seems likely that the government will be forced to back down. However, what is truly important about what's going on in France is that a backlash about the rights and economic opportunities of migrants has escalated into a backlash about neo-liberalism and its impact on the whole of the population. This means that the issue of concern primarily from a minority of the population has been transformed into an issue that concerns the majority of the population. What happened in France may well occur in the United States.


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