By James Petras
The cross border flood of millions of immigrants provokes profound political divisions, violence and the rise of mass movements challenging the unity of the European Union (EU) and the survival of the dominant political parties in the US and Europe.
Both the progressive pro-immigrant and rightwing anti-immigration parties and movements propose easy answers and attack their adversaries with political invective.
Both left and right engage in a losing war, based on historical omissions, abstract and muddle-headed assumptions and destructive proposals.
I will proceed by outlining a framework to understand the political, economic and security implications, which form the centerpiece for confronting immigration.
The Past and the Present
A serious discussion of immigration begins by focusing on the centrality of time and place, encouraging the flow and absorption of immigrants.
In the past, immigration flourished during periods when countries experienced: (1) rapid productive growth; (2)increasing labor demand; (3) trade unions and organizations capable of integrating new (immigrant) workers and protecting the on-going wage rates and conditions for all; (4) cross sectoral labor co-operation and solidarity lowering conflict between immigrant and native workers; (5) inclusive, equitable welfare programs; (6) local, not global wars and (7) violence confined outside of the US and the EU. During these periods, most immigration was confined within Europe and North America or between them.
These conditions could not eliminate competition and conflict but they limited its nature and time frame and allowed for successful integration.
If these conditions formed the basis for relatively peaceful immigration, their absence has intensified conflict amidst an increased flow of immigrants. This process has produced deep political problems. Progressives, who cite past ‘Ellis-Island’ type immigration experience and ignore the unfavorable current socio-economic conditions, are in denial. They dismiss the vast socio-economic and political changes, which have occurred and which make the absorption of new waves of immigrants extremely difficult.
Mass Immigration and Imperial Wars
The vast majority of refugees today are on the move because of Western wars. These wars are ‘total’ wars, designed to obliterate civilian, as well as military institutions and structures. In the last two decades, the US and EU have launched seven wars devastating the lives of once-cohesive and productive families, their homes and farms, jobs, institutions and security. Millions have been driven into exile.
The vast majority of new immigrants are refugees from countries targeted by the US-EU and their suffering has no visible end. During and after the Second World War, refugees suffered greatly, but were generally absorbed or repatriated and integrated into re-constructing their homes and societies. These favorable transitions were aided by an acute post-war labor shortage (over 40 million, mostly men, were killed in WWII) and the economic demands of post-war reconstruction. Western peace movements in the post-WWII past were effective and succeeded in limiting the scope and length of wars. Such peace movements no longer exist. Wars today are designed to be endless and total – in terms of the destruction of civilian infrastructure and national institutions.
Over the past 2 decades, the peace movements have disappeared. This is largely because the US and EU increasingly rely on the use of devastating bombing campaigns by their air and naval forces, which sharply limit Western casualties. Most anti-war movements were sustained by domestic anger at their own soldiers returning in ‘body bags’.
Current domestic economic conditions have sharply deteriorated. Capitalist regimes have imposed brutal economic policies increasing unemployment and low paying temporary job. Joblessness approaches 50% among young workers in Southern Europe – regions flooded with desperate refugees.
Moreover imperial policies have shifted steadily to increased military spending for wars while imposing austerity measures, slashing social programs at home.
In this context, new immigrants, especially refugees from imperial wars, compete for diminishing public resources and drastically reduced wages. Their competition effectively drives down the wages for all workers – sharply increasing the conditions for brutal exploitation.
The intense competition over jobs between native workers and immigrants is the result of capitalist wars and deliberate domestic economic policies to pay for these wars. This creates greater insecurity and hastens the downward mobility experienced by workers and the lower middle class.
In the past, such pressures and conditions led to workers protest, resistance and class conflict.
Today, trade unions cease to unify old and new workers into a strong organized force to confront the worst excesses of capital. Trade union membership has declined precipitously. The union bosses have exchanged militancy and independence for self-serving alliances with capitalist politicians. Trade unions do not protect the basic interests of workers and their families – they follow the lead of the ‘progressive’ pro-immigrant parties which are an arm of the militarist capitalist ruling class.
The workers are not racist when they resist further deterioration in their income and living standards: They are trying to protect their jobs, benefits and social programs for their families – in an environment of increasing insecurity and capitalist exploitation.
In the recent past, workers could rely on stable jobs and increasing wages because of the strong manufacturing domestic economy. These same workers, who are now labelled as ‘racist’, generally accepted immigrant workers at their plants and in their neighborhoods and schools. But this was in the decades before droves of refugees and destitute immigrants fleeing US-EU wars and destruction came to be viewed as threats to their livelihoods and children’s future.
Unlike the past, when international capital brought extracted raw materials back to the imperial country to be processed by local manufacturers, today US and EU multi-nationals have relocated their industries to overseas low wage countries, undermining jobs and living standards at home.
Commercial importers and retailers, like Wal-Mart, re-employ the displaced workers with offers of minimum pay, no benefits and contingent work.
‘Free Trade’ is not really ‘trade: Rather it is the easy outflow of investment and jobs and the retention of profits overseas in tax-havens.
US government-subsidized, high-tech corporate agro-exports have decimated ‘Third World’ farmers, forcing mass immigration of displaced peasants who then form a base to compete with domestic workers and lower the wages in the US and EU.
Progressives falsely argue, ‘ex post facto’, that migrant have merely taken the poorly-paid, unpleasant jobs that local workers rejected. The reality is more complex: In a previous era, most immigrants quickly moved into decently-paid jobs and were generally accepted by US workers.
Once, US meat packers were well-paid workers supported by militant unions. Over time, the unions lost key labor struggles and capitalists reduced wages, in some cases by fifty percent. What had once been well regulated and strictly protected workplaces deteriorated dramatically. This decline was accompanied by the influx and hiring of low wage immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Today, the meat packing industry is among the most dangerous work environment where even immigrant children are employed. The same pattern of deteriorating wages and conditions and replacement by immigrant labor has occurred in landscaping, construction, the garment industry, transport, retailing, plumbing etc.
What has most recently pushed millions of young workers to migrate from their homes are the series of destructive imperial wars. These devastated the domestic security situation, erasing any functional national military and police structures as well as the possibilities for jobs and a stable future for young people. Former military commanders and soldiers, whose families have been torn apart by imperial US-EU wars and stripped of all dignity, have little choice but to join resistance fighters, such as ISIS in Iraq, or join the waves of refugees.
The US and EU invasion forces and puppet regimes have systematically destroyed any secular, democratic, nationalist or socialist parties and movements in the targeted countries, in their drive to divide once cohesive nations into tribal client states. In their place, violent Islamist and ethnic resistance movements have sprung up to fight the invaders and their puppets. This is the natural and predictable result of the imperial policy of destroying modern states on a massive scale.
Since multiple imperial wars in contiguous countries have destroyed all hope for refuge and new lives within the war-torn region, the new violent Islamist movements have adopted their own ‘international strategy’. Since the imperial wars were launched from distant imperial capitals in Washington, London and Paris, using bombs and missiles, the Islamists have little alternative but to base their military and terrorist strategies within civilian populations, leading to massive casualties.
The violent jihadi attacks against civilian targets in the West are not specifically religious or directed at capturing economic resources or power. The objective is to gain political influence among the growing and marginalized immigrant population in Europe and to undermine the capacity and willingness of the EU and US to continue these endless wars.
In the neglected immigrant neighborhood, there will be growing numbers of sympathizers for the ‘attackers’. This will increase demands by angry and frightened citizens in the West who have increasingly accepted the nationalist political solution of ‘draining the lake’ (immigrants) to catch the ‘fish’ (terrorists). Anti-immigrant politics and anti-terrorist police activities become inter-mingled with growing domestic economic insecurity and the sense of cultural and national displacement experienced by traditional homogeneous working class communities adjacent to large enclaves of immigrants. Increasingly severe ‘austerity’ policies, imposed by neo-liberal governments, greatly inflame the situation.
The so-called, liberal pro-immigration parties and movements ignore the fragile socio-cultural fabric of the local communities. They have done little to protect vulnerable communities from capitalist policies of literally dumping immigrants into areas and regions which cannot support or absorb them. The political leaders of pro-immigrant parties are generally far from these communities and immune to growing competition for scarce jobs and resources. For many politicians, bureaucrats and even NGO administrators, ‘their immigrants’ are domestic workers, cooks, baby sitters, gardeners, who directly serve the most comfortable strata of society. In contrast, the masses of uprooted refugees and immigrants live close to local workers, compete for jobs and share crowded clinics, social services and schools – under conditions of increasing scarcity.
The ruling class collaborates with highly domesticated trade union officials and certain ‘coopted’ second generation immigrant leaders to ‘pacify’ this domestic discontent through multi-cultural programs and mandatory diversity training sessions for workers and neighborhoods, without ever having to actually confront the class issues of deteriorating living standards and the loss of future job prospects for the children of local workers.
Working and lower middle class communities will naturally close ranks on ethnic, regional and religious bases, because they lack principled class leaders. They are susceptible to the appeals of nationalist-populist or anti-immigrant leaders and politicians, despite these parties long association with the hard right. With the notable exception of French leader, Marine Le Pen, who skillfully combines a deep understanding of French socio-economic trends with her restrictive immigration policies, the majority of Western populist and anti-immigrant politicians channel the widespread resentment over downward mobility among native workers to blaming ‘the immigrants’.
The virulent media attacks and charges of ‘racism’ made by liberal politicians and intellectuals against the downwardly mobile workers, who have been devastated by neo-liberal policies and the broad consequences of imperial wars, do nothing to combat imperialism and class exploitation. They certainly do not help the immigrants. Denunciations of the marginalized American workers and rural citizens, who voted for US President Donald Trump, by the middle class intellectuals, living in the more comfortable and urbanized coastal states, show a deep misunderstanding of the fundamental changes occurring in the country. In Europe and the US, employees and activists, connected to liberal NGOs, flock to immigrants like carrion birds, carving out their own little careers ‘educating’ immigrants and entreating the local residents of deteriorated neighborhoods to join in ’sharing’ the dominant ruling class-directed celebrations of ‘diversity’ ( or the ‘multi-culturalism of suffering’).
Immigration in the 21st century is significantly different from past waves of migrants. It is highly manipulative to compare the current displacement of millions of war refugees with ‘Ellis Island’ in the US or the post-WWII situation of massive reconstruction in Europe. Immigration today is a direct product of imperial wars, where murder, injury, terror and deliberate shredding of social institutions have forcibly displaced tens of millions of people – the immigrants.
Meanwhile, in the imperial countries, crass capitalist exploitation, the export of capital and jobs, and austerity have aroused the anger of workers and lower middle class employees, whose living standards have sustained significant losses. The forced merger of two enormous waves – the millions of dispossessed refugees and migrants and the marginalized and increasingly threatened workers and citizens in the West has become the key focus of the deepening conflicts of capitalists and workers in the US and the EU. Progressives and reactionaries alike obfuscate the fundamental class issues by diverting public attention to the issue of ‘racism’ and ‘immigrants’.
In the long run, the West must face this dangerous phenomenon by organizing broad and militant anti-imperial peace movements to prevent the wars that produce these waves of desperate migrants. Trade unions, co-operatives and local or national social movements must organize the under-employed, unemployed and underpaid workers to combat the loss of jobs, the pillage of national wealth, massive capitalist tax evasion and the de-industrialization of the national economy. Banks must be nationalized, and education and health care should be publically funded and replace the current massive public budgets for war. Immigrants, who decide to settle in their new countries, should seek to fully integrate, reject dual citizenship and dual loyalties and denounce organizations that act as “fifth columns” for overseas ethno-religious states of all persuasions.
Uprooted people must ultimately choose to remain and fight over flight. They must engage in resistance to imperial occupations in their homelands instead of choosing abject submission and indignities abroad. The role of citizens in the West is to support these struggles by opposing the militarists among their own political leaders.
There are no easy answers for mass migration but there are clear causes and proposals for the future.