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2010: As Economic Woes Go On, Stances Harden On Immigration

Immigrant workers in Moscow. About 12 million migrants from Central Asia and Caucasus work in Russia.
Immigrant workers in Moscow. About 12 million migrants from Central Asia and Caucasus work in Russia.
If global economic crisis was the theme of 2009, in 2010 it might have been "foreigner, go home."

In the southwestern U.S. state of Arizona this spring, a new law was passed allowing police to target and deport people they suspect of being in the country illegally, making it the toughest anti-immigration legislation anywhere in the United States.

In Russia, city authorities in the capital this summer published a so-called Muscovite's Code, advising foreigners to keep kebab-grilling, sheep-slaughtering, and other so-called "traditional" habits to themselves.

And a collective gasp was heard around Europe this autumn, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared to say the unsayable, announcing that after 50 years, Germany's immigration experiment had "failed, utterly failed."

It was an astonishing turn of events in Europe, where officials for years have tiptoed delicately around the sensitive issues of immigration, integration, and what it means to "be" European.

But Merkel's remarks were very much in keeping with growing conservatism on immigration worldwide, as countries slump under the double burdens of security and economic concerns.

Incidents like the Moscow metro bombings in March, a thwarted car-bomb attack in New York's Times Square, and the December 11 double-bombing attempt in Stockholm kept security concerns high on the international radar.

But observers like Audrey Singer, an international immigration expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, say it is the aftermath of the global economic crisis that is responsible for dramatically sharpening the immigration debate this year, as shrinking job opportunities and government benefits make migrants a convenient focus of nations' growing existential angst.

"We're seeing a worldwide recession. Immigration behavior changes during recessions. And immigrants also become a handy target for anxiety," Singer says. "In the 21st century, what this means is that immigrants are more likely to be tied to national security concerns, as well as economic, social, and cultural concerns."

'Irreversible Phenomenon'

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that there are now as many as 214 million immigrants worldwide. By 2050, if immigration continues to grow at the current rate, that number is expected to reach as high as 405 million.

That projection can be explained -- in part -- by the rising numbers of working-age people in developing countries, many of whom will seek opportunity abroad.

But it can also be explained by the ongoing population decline in the world's industrialized nations. Populations in the developed world are expected by shrink by 25 percent by mid-century, leaving a labor gap that can only be filled by imported workers.

In this way, Germany and other countries that are visibly chafing under the challenges of immigration are also grappling with the knowledge that it is essential to their long-term survival.

This is true even on the most conservative end of the spectrum -- in countries like Russia, where anti-immigrant violence is frequent, and officials take pains to defend the rights of the "ethnic majority."

Some Russians may object to the presence of an estimated 12 million migrants in their country, the vast majority from Central Asia and the Caucasus. But the Kremlin this year quietly acknowledged that it was the influx of migrants that helped finally reverse Russia's disastrous 14-year population decline, one of the government's most pressing social concerns.

Alessandro Silj, the director of Ethnobarometer, a Rome-based international research network focusing on migration and integration issues, says simply that immigration is an "irreversible phenomenon," like a genie let out of a bottle.

"Immigrants will continue to come in, and even more so than in the past," he says. "And the issue should not be how to stop them, or how to make there be fewer people coming in. The issue should be, how do we manage their being with us? What kind of life do we offer them?"

Assimilate Vs. Integrate

The inevitability of immigration has many countries now considering other questions as well: How much should we expect them to become like us? And how much should they expect us to help them?

Germans protest against the controversial book "Deutschland schaff sich ab (Germany does away with itself)," written by an executive at Germany's Central Bank, accusing Muslim immigrants of being poorly educated and dumbing-down German society.

In Merkel's Germany -- home to the EU's largest immigrant population, with nearly 11 million non-native residents -- there appears to be growing agreement that the country's "gastarbeiter," or guest worker, culture failed on both of those counts.

In Germany's postwar industrial boom in the 1950s and '60s, hundreds of thousands guests workers were brought in from Italy, Spain, Yugoslavia, Turkey, and other countries to fill in at production lines and factories. They were kept largely segregated from the native population and ultimately, as their name implies, they were expected to leave.

But as Germany's wealth grew, many guest workers opted to stay in the country, often marrying and raising children. With no corresponding policy adjustment in Berlin, even second- and third-generation immigrants have remained largely un-integrated and unable to seek better opportunities.

The problem is particularly acute with Turks, who at 3.7 percent of the population represent Germany's largest ethnic minority and are the target of rising nationalist and Islamophobic sentiment in the country.

Merkel's multiculturalism speech was soon followed by calls to protect Germany's traditional "Judeo-Christian" values and came on the heels of the publication of a controversial book by a high-ranking member of Germany's Central Bank, accusing Muslim immigrants of being poorly educated and dumbing-down German society.

The book became an instant bestseller in Germany, an astonishing development in a country still in deep remorse over its Nazi history. But Josef Joffe, the publisher and editor of Germany's "Die Zeit" newspaper, insists most "reasonable" Germans accept that immigrants are there to stay and don't need to become carbon-copies of the natives.

"We don't use the term assimilation. We use the term integration. And that means: acquire the cultural skills that will make you successful and rise, and pass them on to your children," Joffe says. "And it also means that -- as far as the Germans are concerned -- we should take note of the foreigners in our midst and make sure that we don't just ask them to acquire our cultural skills, but offer them enough opportunities to apply these skills so they can prosper and rise."

Defining Who 'We' Are

Research shows that immigration can bring more to local economies than it drains. A study this year in England showed that migrants from Eastern Europe paid 37 percent more in taxes than they received in benefits and public services.

Still, echoes of the German debate can be heard throughout Europe. Sweden, and Austria this year both saw the rise of far-right parties in elections driven in part by immigration issues.

France this autumn passed a ban on full-face veils and burqas and moved to dismantle hundreds of illegal Roma camps and send their occupants back to Bulgaria and Romania.

The conservative swing on immigration issues has been accompanied by efforts to define and even codify "native" behavior -- most notoriously with things like Russia's Muscovite Code and U.K. citizenship drills that attempt to instill respect for the practice of waiting in line -- an act defended by one British official as "one of the things that holds our country together."

Many countries have attempted to encourage integration by making language instruction compulsory for new residents. Others have gone a step further by imposing guidelines on upholding national values and culture -- as in France, which mandates gender equality classes for new residents, or Denmark, which has imposed restrictions on the rights of immigrants to marry foreigners.

Roderick Parkes, who heads the Brussels office of Germany's SWP Institute for International and Security Affairs, says governments can go too far in imposing demands on immigrants -- especially because the process of trying to define their countries' own "traditional" cultures can be a tricky business.

"What we're seeing at the moment is all sorts of governments across Europe trying to define themselves in a way that they've never done in the past. And I think we're seeing a whole different level of state-building, if you like, and of culture-building," says Parkes. "In objective terms, I don't think it's possible to talk of a dominant culture. Culture is an incredibly slippery, undefinable thing. But for political reasons, that's precisely what we'll see, even if it's ugly and rather subjective sometimes."

The Solution? Don't Stop

The debate is somewhat different in the United States, which, with 43 million foreign nationals, remains the world's prime destination for immigrants despite an era of heightened security concerns and mounting restrictions on who can enter the country.

Immigrants are believed to add $37 billion a year to the U.S. economy, and make up more than one of every 10 self-employed businesspeople. But the sharp contraction of the U.S. economy has, as elsewhere, put new immigrants in the unwelcome position of competing for much-needed jobs at a time of nearly 10 percent unemployment.

A suspected illegal immigrant is processed in Arizona, a state that has taken an increasingly conservative stance on immigration.

Arizona, which saw a massive influx of illegal immigration from Mexico during a 20-year period of expansive growth, responded to the economic crisis by passing the United States' most conservative anti-immigration legislation.

The law, which was roundly condemned by human rights groups, requires police to check the legal status of people they stop, and to detain them on immigration violations if they are found to be lacking proper documents.

Singer, the Brookings Institution immigration expert, says it is largely economic and security concerns that drive the U.S. debate on immigration. The questions of multiculturalism and national identity that are plaguing countries elsewhere are far less divisive in the "melting pot" of the United States, whose history is intimately tied to its immigrant culture.

"I think what people believe is that you can be anything and be American," she says. "We're famous for being hyphenated here. You can be Chinese-American, you can be Mexican-American, you can be Iraqi-American. So it doesn't necessarily mean that you have to change completely the way you live culturally. You somehow manage to maintain your own traditions if you would like to, and also become part of something bigger."

Still, as long as the global economy remains cause for concern, all countries -- including the United States -- will see a belt-tightening attitude on immigration policy. But the IOM, seeking to counterbalance growing resistance to immigration, argues that labor migration is in fact a boon to the global economy.

If developed nations let in an extra 14 million migrants workers by 2025, they argue, the world will be $356 billion richer, with the bulk of those funds flowing back to developing countries in the form of remittances. The IOM has urged countries to view migration not as a drain on resources, but as a vital key to full recovery from the current economic crisis.

"The challenge is to find humane and equitable solutions that reconcile people's desire to migrate with the national sovereignty of states on population movements," the IOM's director-general, William Lacy Swing, wrote on the occasion of International Migrants Day on December 18. "Cooperation is not only essential to ensure the rights of migrants are respected, but also to migrants respecting the culture and laws of host countries."