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The Politics of Immigrant Scapegoating: Not Just an American Pastime

Around the world, as long as people keep moving, politicians will continue to talk breathlessly about the immigration “crisis.” It’s a campaign trail standard in the U.S., but in Britain and Western Europe as well, political figures waste no opportunity to project voters’ deepest fears and wildest misperceptions onto whatever group of newcomers is most visible—whether they’re Egyptian, Roma or Polish.An election poster of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) for the federal elections in Switzerland that emphasizes sharp measures against immigrants. (Photo: Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images)

Here in the U.S., all the GOP presidential hopefuls are racing to brandish their nativist street cred. But Mitt Romney has pulled ahead in the meme-fest coming out of South Carolina’s primary. Despite his own immigrant lineage (due to his Mormon missionary roots), Romney has checked off all the boxes: supporting E-Verify, promising to beef up border security, and smacking down the DREAM Act for undocumented students. Appealing to law-and-order types, Romney touts the endorsement of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who helped craft Arizona’s SB1070 law. (South Carolina, too, boasts an SB1070 copycat bill.)

Not to be outdone, Rick Santorum has argued that once you’ve crossed the border illegally, regardless of what you do or the family you raise thereafter, “everything you’re doing while you’re here is against the law.”

The resurgent Newt Gingrich has touted a relatively “humane” reform plan based on a vaguely defined screening process that might legalize “about 1 million” undocumented immigrants. Though the plan would expel roughly “7 or 8 or 9 million” to their home countries before they can apply to return, even this proposal was immediately decried by rivals as “amnesty.”

But immigrant-bashing isn’t just an American pastime. Although Europe’s far-right movements have generally laid low since Anders Breivik’s murderous rampage against “multiculturalism” in Norway, the hard right remains a vocal minority in several countries.

France—the country the GOP vilifies as a bastion of wine-swilling egalitarian liberals—has stepped up deportations, according to the Washington Post. President Nicolas Sarkozy, himself a descendant of immigrants*, has pushed for more deportations as he approaches a tough election. Squeezing the president even further to the right is the hardline National Front party, trumpeting a fiercely anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant platform.

Sakorzy’s government sparked international outrage last year with the so-called “burqa ban.” The criminalization of veiled Muslim women reflects a general stereotype, promoted by the political class, that Muslims are unwilling to “assimilate.”

Racial hostility has also intensified against communities of ethnic Roma, who have been systematically expelled or displaced by the government’s bulldozers.

Revealing misplaced economic anxiety, Italian conservatives have proposed to kick out immigrants who have been unemployed for six months, and their families.

British politicians play a similar tune, the UK Independent reports:

Government ministers have implied a link between immigration and joblessness. “Controlling immigration is critical or we will risk losing another generation to dependency and hopelessness,” said Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, in a speech last July.

The Coalition has imposed a cap on immigration from outside the European Union and has pledged to reduce net migration to “the tens of thousands” a year by the end of this parliament in 2015.

Nevermind a recent study by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research that shows “no link between rising immigration and rising unemployment.” But the debate rages on with yet another controversial study suggesting some correlation between native-born unemployment and “non-European” immigration.

Such political tensions are kindling for violence. Germany’s Turkish immigrant community has been shaken by neo-Nazi murders, as well as incensed at the center-right government’s perceived failure to adequately investigate the crimes. Still, Peter Grossman at Public Affairs contends that politicians’ concerns about “right wing terrorism” is really a red herring that obscures extremist elements embedded within the state. Mainstream conservatives, Grossman suggests, might just be keeping Nazi-affiliated groups around on the margins to keep the public tense, which in turn strengthens the political centrists as guarantors of stability.

But there’s a fine line between containing the ultra-right and validating them. The far-right actually picked up 6 percent of the state parliamentary vote in Mecklenburg. According to Der Spiegel, strong support has come from economically depressed rural communities, where slogans like “Criminal Foreigners Out” resonate with disaffected voters.

Switzerland’s recent election saw a surge in votes for the Swiss People’s Party, which has deployed chillingly familiar propaganda tropes, such as, according to the Associated Press, “striking posters of black boots stomping on the Swiss flag with the message ‘Stop Mass Immigration’ ” and graphics of “white sheep kicking out a black sheep or dark hands grasping for Swiss passports.”

In a 2011 essay in The Nation, author Ian Buruma observed that, in contrast to the vintage image of “neo-Fascists pining for black shirts and military marches”:

Europe’s new populists are smartly dressed modern men and women who claim to be defending our freedoms. And they are persuasive because people are afraid and resentful, blaming economic and social anxieties on “liberal elites.” But if the fears are vague and various, the focal point is Islam.

On both sides of the Atlantic, political scapegoating attests both to prevailing ignorance as well as to the political establishment’s delusions of power. Politicians exploit social frustrations by peddling the belief that passing racist laws or building higher fences can turn back a demographic process set in motion by centuries of global capitalism, war and imperialism—and save their pension in the process.

Ordinary people, however, seem to be discovering that maintaining empire is the province of officialdom, not democracy. A recent Pew study of public opinion reveals that in today’s economic climate, “conflicts between rich and poor now rank ahead of three other potential sources of group tension—between immigrants and the native born; between blacks and whites; and between young and old.”

But no savvy politician would highlight the widening gulf between the masses of poorer people on one side, and the elite seeking their votes on the other. For the would-be rulers of prosperous advanced democracies, it’s always safer to stick to the traditional dividing line between Us and Them: the border.

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