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«CROSSING BORDERS IN THE NEW IMPERIALISM Bob Sutcliffe In words which seem uncannily relevant today, two mid-nineteenth century fugitives (in ...»

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In theory it might be expected that any positive effects on inter-country distribution would be offset by the negative effects of more immigration on workers in the developed countries. The effects of immigration on employment and wages have been quite widely studied by economists but they have failed to reach a consensus. One careful comparative evaluation of economic studies of this question concludes that “the growing body of empirical research on the economic impacts of immigration has produced many and various findings, but there does not seem to be any consistent evidence of broad net negative effects on wage or employment levels among native born workers”28. The absence of the expected effect is often explained by arguing that the labour market is not a simple, single entity but a whole series of relatively segmented markets. The effects of immigration may be only on one of these, rather than on the level of wages and unemployment as a whole. In particular, many immigrant communities, once they reach a critical minimum size, form partially self contained economic enclaves with their own partly separate economies.

Immigrants themselves, however, often suffer discrimination when they try to integrate themselves in the economic life of the destination countries. Many of them receive lower wages and suffer higher levels of unemployment than the population as a whole, though it should not be forgotten that immigrants are an increasingly bipolar category, divided between the more than averagely skilled and the less than averagely skilled with relatively few in the middle skill categories. In Britain a higher proportion of immigrants have low educational qualifications than the population as a whole; but also a higher proportion of immigrants have especially high educational qualifications29.

There is something which economic studies have missed. Virtually all of them have looked at the effect on wages and employment of the number of immigrants.

Few, if any, have looked at the effects of the legal status of immigrants. Whatever is the economic consequence of the amount of immigration it is predictable that the criminalization of part of the migrant population will have a serious effect on inequality. It obliges immigrants to pay enormous sums in order to enter destination countries, it renders them victims of criminal traffickers or bosses who super-exploit them, it leaves them particularly vulnerable to threats if they do manage to migrate and find employment, it renders them more liable to be robbed, injured or killed during the journey, and it makes them accept non-enumerated. sweated, or even illegal and low-paid work.

Criminalization not only reduces the gains to immigrants themselves, it is also likely to threaten the wages and conditions of already resident workers. Nothing is more damaging to the bargaining power of the working class as a whole as the existence of a significant fraction of it which suffers worse conditions, whose ability to organize is completely negated by their illegal status, and who live with the constant threat that their presence will be denounced to the authorities by employers or rivals. So it is by no means obvious that lifting immigration barriers would have a negative effect on wages and conditions in the labour market. And more positively it would enhance the possibility of drawing immigrant workers into the organizations of the labour movement.


The history of migration is an important part of the history of imperialism.

Imperialist expansion in many parts of the world went hand in hand with the forced migration of slaves and indentured workers. The havoc wreaked by imperialist occupation has made many areas of the world unable to support human life and so produced the conditions of more migration. The greatly increased inequalities produced by colonialism left a huge incentive for emigration when colonialism ended.

The long series of alliances of convenience between imperialist countries and oppressive dictatorships in Third World countries has also increased the political pressures to migrate. A large share of today’s asylum applicants are fleeing the actions of some government put or kept in power by the great powers of the international community. It is not possible to deny, let alone to roll back, the long history of imperialism which has help to produce the pressures which today result in migration.

International migration at the start of the twenty first century is still intimately tied up with the main mechanisms of imperialism. The liberalization of immigration for highly skilled workers and international corporations reflects the needs of the protagonists in the increasing competitive struggles between capitalist powers in a very imperfectly globalized economy. The worsening of conditions of migration for poorer migrants and asylum applicants is one aspect of the polarizing tendencies of the world economy, partially but very inadequately compensated by the rising flow of migrants’ remittances. The continued rise in migration, despite the fortresses and obstacles which confront them, is certainly part of the continuous incorporation of the whole world into the commodity economy. And immigration often leads to cultural assimilation and sometimes impoverishment. The realities of immigration, however, are not only part of imperialism but also an aspect of the struggle against it.

Immigration in part represents an assertion of rights to share in prosperity by those whom the fortresses seek to keep out. Immigration sometimes leads as much to cultural preservation, creativity and interchange as to cultural destruction. Migration often permits progressive citizens to survive the persecution of dictators. And, despite all the problems associated with it, it makes some contribution to breaking down the destructive traditions of ethnically based nationalism which have created or fuelled most of the conflicts of the last century and more.

The restriction of migration runs counter to the interests of poorer countries and poorer people and in some ways to the economic interests of the workers of developed countries.That does not mean that unlimited immigration is preferable to more balanced development of the world or to a more basic solution to the problem of inequality and exploitation. But in the context of a capitalist world economy with virtually no commitment to the elimination of world poverty the freedom for all workers to move freely across borders increases equality. For that reason alone it is a freedom which socialists should defend.

Nevertheless, it is not enough to assert the abolition of borders as a socialist principle; a way needs to be found, especially in today’s developed countries, to translate it into a set of policies which can command popular support. Such practical utopianism will need to focus on migration and citizenship laws, economic and welfare policy, anti-racism and foreign policy.

Dismantling the physical and bureaucratic barbed wire with which rich countries are increasingly surrounding themselves would contribute to meeting some needs of many poor and persecuted people. But their welfare also depends on the rights which they posess once borders are crossed. If it takes them a long time to acquire the same rights which existing inhabitants enjoy, then migrants will continue to suffer political persecution and economic super-exploitation which will also weaken sections of the existing resident working class. Immigrants should be able to gain full rights of access to work, protection by wages and hours legislation, to social services and benefits and full rights to organize. It is important for existing workers’ and socialist organizations to support these rights for immigrants and to fight alongside them. Migration requires the development of a kind of portable citizenship, where citizenship is seen less as membership of a national community and more as endowment with a number of rights. It would help if formal citizenship were made easier to acquire. The rate of naturalization as a percentage of the estimated foreign population in recent years is nowhere very high: it is less than 3 per cent in Germany, Spain and the UK, more than 7 per cent in the Netherlands and Sweden with France and the USA somewhere in between. Many migrants need to have dual nationality, which is becoming more possible (even in the USA), but again the pace of change is slow.

To contemplate the opening of borders is to confront the real state of the world – its conflicts, injustices and inequalities. Fears inevitably arise that more immigrants will simply mean more conflicts for a limited number of jobs and resources. The possibility of such conflicts cannot be wished away. But jobs and resources are not an unchangeable quantity. They are influenced by the economic policy, of firms, of states and of supra-national entities. The economic problems faced by large numbers of workers in developed countries during the last 25 years have resulted not from immigration but primarily from the neoliberal policies of privatization, deflation, labour market “flexibilization” and cutbacks in the social services. Attention has been focussed on reducing the financial cost of social policy not on the changes and expansion in social spending which are necessary complements of rising immigration.

The insecurities of the sections of the non-immigrant working class most affected by neoliberalism have naturally been exploited by the racist right. It has been too easy to spread the idea that it is immigration which has been responsible for economic hardship. The governments responsible for the economic hardships have either tacitly allowed the connection to be made, or have sometimes argued it explicitly. What should be a conflict about economic policies with class at its centre has been converted into one about immigration policies with race and nationalism at its centre30. Governments could still, globalization notwithstanding, do a great deal through their economic policy to ensure that any growth in immigration does not threaten jobs, public services, housing standards and the environment.

There is no necessity that large scale immigration of people of other ethnic or national groups or colours will result in more racism and xenophobia. Pervasive as racism is in the world the worst inter-ethnic conflicts are not especially associated with recent immigration. They often occur after communities have lived together for centuries. But today immigration is exploited by racists to sow conflict. Although racism is not simply economically determined, it is likely that if employment and other economic policies work then many typical racist arguments will be more difficult to use. But it is impossible to imagine the racist and xenophobic threat being defeated without directly confronting it politically and ethically. Fears of conflict, opportunistically generated and not based on any real differences of interest, cannot be allowed to govern a society’s policies on immigration.

Many of the situations which now produce forced migration and the need for asylum result directly and indirectly from the foreign policies of the countries which are now energetically trying to exclude immigrants. The ending of support for tyrannies and international economic policies which create greater inequality and obstruct the development of poor countries would reduce the pressures to emigrate from many countries. But socialists should be very clear that the purpose of foreign policies is not to reduce migration. Some proponents of more international aid have used that argument, but it tacitly accepts the anti-immigration prejudice. A less imperialist foreign policy would create fewer forced migrants. But, by encouraging more democratic societies, perhaps with more successful economic involvement with the rest of the world, with opportunities for education and more knowledge of the world, a less imperialist foreign policy might also create more voluntary migration.

There is every reason for socialists to argue for a massive transfer of economic resources to poorer countries (though not in the form of what now passes for development aid), but it should be on its own merits regardless of the effect which it has on the scale of migration.

Although some migrations reflect politically and economically pathological conditions and events in the world, migration in itself is not, as the anti-immigration coalition claims it to be, pathological. It can be part of a healthy, living cosmopolitan society. In particular it is a phenomenon which can help the world’s working class to escape from the nationalist strait-jacket in which the intermittently cosmopolitan bourgeoisie has always tried to confine it.

There is another immediate reason why socialists should give priority to resisting immigration controls: immigration in threatening to become the central issue of politics in Europe, and a very important one elsewhere. Opposition to immigration is the leitmotif of the far right in all European countries; despite many oscillations in its fortunes, it has recently been gaining ground. In the last five years the extreme

anti-immigration right has gained a foothold on power in several European countries:

Austria, Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands. And in France the advance of the National Front has not ended with Le Pen’s defeat in the presidential election. The vast majority of mainstream political thinking, of the so called centre right and centre left, rejects part of the rhetoric of the extreme right’s project but increasingly adopts its content. Its response to ultra-right mobilization around immigration has been to implement a panic-driven programme of measures which criminalizes much immigration and vilifies many immigrants. Fortress Europe will lead to consequences which should be unacceptable to socialists. It can only be enforced by the militarization of borders, the worsening of conditions for many migrants and a growing number of deportations. Such a trend threatens not only immigrants but all citizens. It is impossible to repress one section of the population without repressing others. And it will worsen relations between existing communities in Europe.

Fortresses are not by nature peaceful or democratic.

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