Beyond a boundary

(This piece was first published in Business Standard on 10th August, 2019.)

“The vast majority of immigrants do not enter host countries in boats risking their lives or sneak in hidden inside a truck or by jumping walls or fences,” writes Neeraj Kaushal, a professor of social policy at Columbia University School of Social Work. Her book, Blaming Immigrants: Nationalism and the Economics of Global Movement, goes beyond the optics of immigration in popular media discourse, and looks at empirical data to understand why people migrate and what drives the resistance against them.

According to Kaushal, immigration is one of the slowest moving dimensions of globalization. “In proportion to world population, the number of global immigrants — people living outside their country of birth — is a modest 3 percent.” Immigrants produce reams of documents before entering host countries with visas issued by consulate offices. This bureaucratic machinery is designed to identify potential security threats, ascertain if the cause of immigration is justified, and to certify their earnings, wealth and health to reassure host countries that these immigrants will not become a public charge on arrival. They are also required to certify the income and wealth of their sponsors, who are liable to foot medical bills if the immigrants cannot.

Only the most resilient can survive this daunting paperwork. They go through this process for numerous reasons; mainly employment, education and proximity to family. Having combed through official reports and scholarly material, Kaushal argues that immigration is rising because international travel and communication costs have become affordable due to economic growth in sending countries. Immigrants move to countries with opportunities but are selective because discrimination and xenophobia increase the psychological cost of immigration. They prefer places where they feel welcome, particularly those with policies that facilitate their integration.

Kaushal does not restrict herself to writing about high-skilled workers who are considered assets to the economies of host countries. She emphasizes how low-skilled immigrants are willing to take many of the jobs that local workers are unwilling to do, and how local workers in some occupations benefit from the inflow of immigrant workers in complementary occupations. Immigrants buy goods and services produced by locals, and locals also get to enjoy reduced prices of goods and services offered by immigrants.

Kaushal is pro-immigration but also acknowledges the challenges. She says, “Immigrants demand some of the same services as native families, including schools, hospitals, housing, roads and railways. In the short run, increased demand will likely increase the price of some of these services and create shortages. In the long run, additional capacity will be created to meet increased demand.”

Though the data shows that immigration provides cheap labour, encourages innovation, and brings young workers to support aging natives, it is a political hot potato. There is a widespread fear that immigrants will take the jobs of local workers, and also create disturbances in host countries with their alien traditions. Populist leaders are only too eager to spin this narrative.

Alongside chastizing Donald Trump, Kaushal notes the rise of right-wing politicians across Europe, who use immigrants as convenient scapegoats to avoid addressing skill-biased technological change, outsourcing, global financial integration, decline of workers’ unions, and increase in women’s labour force participation — factors responsible for economic inequality in host countries.

It is chilling to consider what Europe has been doing to deter immigration, especially refugee inflows from Syria, based on the premise that restricting immigration would reduce terrorism. Germany, Denmark and Switzerland mandate confiscating of cash, assets and valuables from refugees if they are above a certain minimum. The Danish city of Randers has made it legally binding on schools and restaurants to serve pork in order to dissuade Muslim refugees from coming to Denmark. Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia accept only Christian refugees because they have no mosques. European countries have also provided large grants to Turkey and Jordan, hoping that refugees would not leave their countries of first settlement.

The paranoia about refugees comes from an imagined clash of civilizations. They get unfairly equated with terrorists carrying out high-profile attacks in Western cities. When host countries build fences and walls to restrict immigration, refugees depend on hazardous routes to emigrate. They build underground tunnels, or fall prey to illegal human trafficking. Instead of curtailing crime, host countries end up providing ideal conditions for it to flourish.

“In most countries, the success of enforcement is expressed in measures of fortification: length of fence, number of border personnel, positioning of border surveillance, and creation of detention facilities. Success is thus defined by resources poured into national security and not by whether these investments have made the nation more secure,” says Kaushal. Billions of dollars are spent on securing borders without assessing impact. This expenditure goes unchecked because people who raise questions about national security strategies risk being labelled unpatriotic.

Host countries institute restrictive policies to address nativist anxieties but this is usually done on shaky grounds. What passes off as a concern for national security is actually racism. Kaushal writes, “While the international media provides extensive coverage of terrorists’ attacks in Western cities, they pay much less attention to terrorism elsewhere, even though developing countries are by far the primary victims of international terrorism.” She cites the Global Terrorism Index published by the Institute for Economics and Peace. Between 2004 and 2015, the top 15 countries for terrorism-related fatalities were in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Three-fourths of the fatalities were from these three regions.

Hostility towards immigrants is also witnessed outside Western democracies. Kaushal points out India’s attempt to seal the border with Bangladesh, Pakistan’s efforts to expel Afghans living in the country for decades, Thailand’s refusal to take in Rohingya refugees, Brazil’s virtual wall monitored by drones and satellites, and Saudi Arabia’s construction of walls around five of its borders to restrict immigration from neighbouring countries.

This book would have been less impressive if Kaushal had only poked holes but not used her training as an economist to recommend how things can be fixed. She proposes that illegal immigration can better managed by creating visa categories that acknowledge the need for low- and medium-skilled workers. The administrative burden of asylum applications can be reduced by encouraging asylum seekers to apply for visas under employment, international education, family migration, humanitarian, and private sponsorship categories.

She thinks that remittances are a more reliable source of funds to lift living standards in sending countries than policies to lower tariff barriers or giving them development aid to restrict emigration. “Many of the incentives — like foreign aid — end up strengthening regimes that immigrants and refugees are trying to escape,” says Kaushal. She also suggests working towards better integration of immigrants. New York City, for instance, provides identity cards to all residents, including the undocumented, by linking a range of benefits including discounts on Metrocards, restaurants and museum tickets to the IDNYC card.

Kaushal is not writing for bleeding heart liberals who organize fundraisers, turn up at protests, and sign petitions on social media, yet they would find her book an incredibly valuable resource when confronted with hard-nosed capitalists who prefer economic arguments to sentimental appeals.



Writer, educator and researcher

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