Immigration panic in the western countries revolves around identity and jobs

USAWritten By: Wajahat QaziUpdated: May 14, 2020, 01:42 PM IST
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File photo: A man exits the transit area after clearing immigration and customs on arrival at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia, U.S., September 24, 2017. Photograph:(Reuters)

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The thrust of the fear around immigration revolves around identity and jobs.

Immigration is a hot and contentious topic in the rich Western world. The multiculturalisation of Western societies has generated and bred fear and anger not only giving ammunition to populists of assorted types but also changing the political dynamics and colouration of many of these societies. The thrust of the fear around immigration revolves around identity and jobs. In terms of the former, it is held or believed that the immigrant cohort, its arrival on Western shores will change the nature and complexion of Western societies and that this is not necessarily for the good. This is overlaid by fears of job takeovers by immigrants. While both these fears have some merit, but in the main, they are overblown. It is not just the ‘irrational’ fear of the ‘other’ that informs these fears. It is fundamentally about a given or certain identity being swamped by difference; prosaically but potently about economic uncertainty and thereby insecurity generated by immigration that is, at the risk of repletion, that breeds anger and fear. 

All this is well known. But, lost in the immigration and immigrant debate is the nature and breakdown of the immigrant cohort that arrives on Western shores, so to speak. Barring refugee flows, which states usually accept on humanitarian grounds and their commitments to international covenants and agreements, mostly, the immigrant flows into the West comprise the already well off and the privileged. The most egregious of these flows are twofold: skill-based immigration and the one mediated through the university systems of some Western countries. In both instances, it is self-evident that the immigrant cohort is well off and not underprivileged.

Consider the doctors that have become part of the NHS in the UK: they are professionals who have been welcomed into the country, have, more often than not, become citizens; in the process, their life chances and the prospect of the ‘good life’ have considerably improved. Another example worth citing is that of Australia: a country that was perhaps a pioneer in granting permanent residency to students graduating from its university system. Here too, the students in contention were from privileged grounds: it takes a lot of financial wherewithal to enrol and study in Western universities; living expenses are another factor to consider. While some students from underprivileged backgrounds sneaked through these systems by paying the initial outlay of fees and then survived on part-time jobs but in the main the gravamen of the student cohort is from privileged grounds.

Is this a problem? Yes and No.

Yes, because it leaves a vast cohort of underprivileged young people from poor countries in the cold. It is to state the obvious that the public education systems in poorer countries are not great; the provision of public goods like education is shoddy and sub-par and access to even these is uneven. Conditions of poverty are another factor that precludes millions from going to school let alone even think of higher education. This, however, does not and should not mean bias and prejudice toward those who can afford the pastures of the West.

But, if education and immigration are to be a tool for development then the immigration policy that underpins the approach in vogue is flawed. Both can catalyze development not merely through and by remittances but also through human capital formation. There is an extant vast pool of human capital in the world that remains untapped because of poverty and deprivation. This is besides being a utilitarian problem one that is also a moral issue. Why should a place of birth or station in society determine the life chances of a given individual? Should not universal education be an intrinsic good or a global public good?

The answer is yes, but in an ideal world. We live in an imperfect world. Given this can the Western education system and its immigration corollary rise to the occasion? Probably not. The reason is that most Western universities are now for profit. But, it might be argued here that there are scholarships available. The commonsense critique of this is that even to access these scholarships, a person needs resources that he or she might not have. Is this condition irremediable?

Not necessarily. The world’s development institutions must see higher education as a tool of development and progress. They can enter into alliances with Western universities, fund partly and cross-subsidize the education of the deserving poor. This approach might not only redeem these institutions given their political predilections and ideological proclivities that they have been accused of but also constitute a catalytic spur to development.  This aid can be tied to returning home. But, if then a given poor student has the skill and gumption, let the global labour markets determine his or her choice of home!

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)