Donald Trump, the president of the United States, rode to and assumed the highest seat of power in the country, on account of a plethora of issues. One of these has been and is immigration. The American president tapped into the wellsprings of anxiety of the white superstructure of the United States. The nature of this anxiety pertained to the angst generated by waves of immigration into the country wherein it was felt that immigrants not only “ ate into the economic opportunities presented by the country” but also swamped it , presenting in the process, a cultural threat to its very fabric. While “bleeding heart liberals” may quibble with the assertion that follows, there is merit to both of these fears.
Even though economists, in the main and on balance, posit that immigration has net benefits to the host country, predicating this assessment on a whole host of assumptions and empirical evidence, but the fact is that immigrants, especially into the Anglophone countries like the United States are , generally speaking, well educated , driven and ambitious. The deregulation of labor markets, globalization and its concomitant, the migration of manufacturing to low wage countries, coupled with the fact that higher education in the United States is a terribly expensive affair precluding access to it and thereby undermining both equality of opportunity and access skews the playing field for natives. The cumulative effect of these developments and trends is psycho social: a “ white” person in the industrial rust belts of the United States , would “naturally” feel hard done by if and when jobs migrate and opportunities vanish. The fallback for this hypothetical person would be a retreat into “ primeval” identity and a psychological need to project the attendant angst onto an “Other”, thereby begetting identity politics in the process.
Culturally, immigrants are a breed apart, so to speak, from their host societies in the West. While the debate about “nature” and “ nurture” is a laudable one( but rather academic), the “fact” is that culture and habitus are the determinative and causative influences in forging an individual’s or community’s world view and conceptions of the “good life”. These invariably clash with those of host societies in the West leading to either friction , frisson or functional interaction between various peoples. The argument that 2nd or 3rd generation immigrant cohort is well adjusted has merit, but only upto a point and extent. Europe here constitutes a classic example of the generational argument about immigration: it has been observed that those who have rebelled against the fabric and nature of European societies have mostly come from the 2nd or 3rd generation of immigrants. The inference that can be drawn here is that both “assimilation” and “integration” are insufficient to serve as the grids for “mainstreaming” immigrants. The net result is that immigrants either become “ mimic men(women)” or estranged members and communities in an overall social and cultural framework that they feel is hostile to them. A similar but contra dynamic obtains for natives who, because of the visibility of immigrants feel swamped, engendering hostility in the process.
(It is here that a demagogue or a populist can cannibalize on the fears of the natives and amplify these in and for the quest of power)
But, the prosaic fact is that in a networked world of flows and globalization which has mellowed down over the past years but is in the nature of a structural megatrend that can slow down but not reverse, immigration through policy fiat and decree can be slowed but not stopped. Overlaying this trend is the “fact” that the character of Western societies has changed drastically. These are no longer monocultural ones with familiar markers and grids. Populism and identity politics are then short term fixes that can , at best, accord a feel good factor to the natives and a ladder for demagogues to foray into seats of power.
What then is the “ antidote” to an issue that has polarized not only the United States but almost the entire Western world?
No easy answers present themselves here. But, one is to dig deep into the nature of the West itself. Philosophically, the West is an entity defined by a set of values that are not merely instrumental. One defining feature of the West’s intrinsic philosophy is the primacy of man(woman) from which flows the philosophy, practice and compendium of human rights, among other things. ( This is not to imply that immigration is a human right). The corollary that flows from the fundamental philosophy of the West is that man(woman) is just that , a man or woman and where artificial and inorganic constructs like nationalism and identity thereof are ephemeral that detract from the essence of man(woman). From this perspective then the West is an entity or , lets say, a philosophy that is open to all. A focus on narrow nationalisms and identities detracts from its very nature. It is here that Trump and his cohort are wrong. By caricaturing the West and pigeonholing it into a category, populists demean the West.
The argument delineated here is not a sly one meant to make latitude and leeway for immigration and immigrants through the back door, so to speak but to put matters into perspective. It is not also meant to rationalize either. Immigration is both a phenomenon and practice that can rent asunder not only the personality of immigrants but also the fabric of host societies. Moreover, it is a fallacy to assume that peoples across the world want to migrate to the West. Involving defraying of “roots” and a fragmentation of the personality-both individual and collective- immigration is not easy , to say the least. Most people would want to stay rooted and wedded to their communities. To make the phenomenon a matter of both choice and liberty, perhaps the best yet imperfect antidote to the “problem of immigration” is freer trade which has a correlation with economic growth and development. If a potential immigrant is accorded a stake in his or her society and community, his or her likelihood of exit is lessened. And, in a networked global economy, there is always the possibility of choice and autonomy. So, while freer trade is not the catch all solution to the issue but it is in the nature of a palliative that can obviate it to a large extent.
However, in the final analysis, the world , at large, should be a place where choices of entry and exit, should not be determined by race, culture, identity and other similar constructs. It should be one where the essence of identity should be and is being human. This is what the West is about, philosophically and ideationally and is these ideals that Trump and Co are undermining!
— The author can be reached at: wajahatqazi1234@gmaIl.com