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The Long History of Anti-Immigration Rhetoric


File:London Brexit pro-EU protest March 25 2017 06.jpg
Pro-EU march in London on March 25, 2017 (by Ilovetheeu via Wikimedia Commons)

"Open-door migration," wrote Nigel Farage on June 21st, 2016, "has suppressed wages in the unskilled labour market, meant that living standards have fallen and that life has become a lot tougher for so many in our country. We must leave the European Union so that not only can wages increase for British workers but so that living standards rather than declining can start going up. The wellbeing of those living and working in our country matters to me more than GDP figures. The EU’s open borders make us less safe. As a bureaucratic club it makes us poorer." 

The Vote Leave campaign, too, warned that immigration posed a threat to the UK's safety and prosperity. "Nearly 2 million people came to the UK from the EU over the last ten years. Imagine what it will be like in future decades when new, poorer countries join," Vote Leave argued.

In September 2017 UKIP leader Henry Bolton said: “Doctors’ surgeries are being closed, police numbers are being cut, and crime is increasing, multiculturalism is swamping or displacing our own British culture. This does not create the optimistic, confident nation that we all wish to be.”

The idea that immigration is dangerous both for a country's economy and its culture is a typical feature of xenophobic narrative. It is nothing new. For over two hundred years xenophobes have been repeating similar false arguments, without ever being able to provide evidence for their claims. 

In 1856 the American nativist Thomas R. Whitney published a book entitled A Defence of the American Policy as opposed to the Encroachments of Foreign Influence, and especially to the Interference of the Papacy. In it he wrote:  

"The distinguishing features of our form of government, as adapted to the happiness and prosperity of its individual citizens … have conspired to pour upon our shores a vast and still increasing tide of people, fleeing from the oppressions, restraints, and the burdens of life … The loftiest intelligence and the meanest intellect – the man of wealth, and the starving millions – the statesman, the philosopher, the idiot, the criminal, and the insane … in one common flood, have cast their destinies and their opinions, their worth and their mendicity, their morals and their vices, their superstitions, their traditions, and their prejudices, upon the social bosom of America …

"To believe that a mass so crude and incongruous, so remote from the spirit, the ideas, and the customs of America, can be made to harmonize readily with the new element into which it is cast, is, to say the least, unnatural … A single savage may be readily civilized; a whole tribe never … European immigration is unquestionably the 'Grecian horse' of the American Republic …

"Probably the most accurate data on which an opinion can be based is the enormous disproportion of European criminals in the United States, as compared with those of American birth; a majority of all the capital crimes, the felonies, larcenies, and misdemeanors being committed by foreigners, whereas the foreign population of the country is only about ‘one-seventh’ of the whole …

"I feel justified in classifying 'paupers' as one of the great subdivisions of immigration at the present day … They are not merely useless, they are worse than useless – they are a moral sore on the body politic – a disease, both moral and physical – a leprosy – a contamination; and the American authorities and people are made to be their servants, their physicians, their nurses, their hewers of wood and drawers of water!

"Immigration has produced a discord of moral and political sentiment in the land … it has brought infidelity, and a disregard for … habits of religion and morality … it has implanted the papal influence, that poisonous foe of civil and religious liberty – it has invaded the time-honored customs of our ancestors … it has inflicted an unequal competition on the industry of the people … These are facts, and, with such facts before us, the duties of the American statesman, in his dealing with immigration, are no longer problematic. They are manifest" (A Defence of the American Policy, pp. 164-166 and 181-187, my emphasis).

Almost twenty years later, Denis Kearney, an Irish-born naturalized US citizen, became the leader of a movement that lambasted not the "Europeans" such as himself (the ones whom Whitney had condemned), but another group: the Chinese. Kearney depicted the Chinese as dangerous, uncivilized, and as a threat to American workers. In a 1878 speech Kearney said:

“Money monopoly has reached its grandest proportions. Here, in San Francisco, the palace of the millionaire looms up above the hovel of the starving poor with as wide a contrast as anywhere on earth. To add to our misery and despair, a bloated aristocracy has sent to China—the greatest and oldest despotism in the world—for a cheap working slave. It rakes the slums of Asia to find the meanest slave on earth—the Chinese coolie—and imports him here to meet the free American in the Labor market, and still further widen the breach between the rich and the poor, still further to degrade white Labor” (my emphasis). 

The anti-Chinese movement led to the passing of the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which put a stop to Chinese immigration altogether.

We can clearly see that the arguments of xenophobes have remained the same. They are based on an irrational fear of the other, on a mistaken understanding of economics, on the dehumanization of individuals, who are characterized collectively as a "flood" of people who threaten a country's culture and well-being. 

In hindsight, we know that neither the "Europeans" (i.e. the non-English immigrants) nor the Chinese posed an existential threat to the United States. Millions of Europeans and Chinese settled in the country, giving their contribution to its society and economy. Europe and China themselves have since developed, showing that, under the right circumstances, they had the ability to thrive. Whitney's and Kearney's anti-immigrant sentiment was not based on facts, but on prejudice and irrational fears. 

The idea that immigrants harm the economy and drive down wages has no basis in reality. Let us look at some data. 

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, in 2016 California's current-dollar GDP was $2,622.7 billion and ranked 1st in the United States. Its per capita income stood at $56,374. If it was a country, California would be the 6th largest economy in the world. 

By contrast, Alabama's current-dollar GDP in 2016 was $205.6 billion, ranking 27th in the United States. With a per capita income of $38,896, it was ranked 47th.

What is the foreign-born population in California and Alabama?

As of 2015, California had over 10 million immigrants. 27% of the population was foreign-born, about twice the US average. In 2015 Alabama only had 169,972 immigrants, who amounted to less than 4% of the population. In 2016 65.8% of Alabama's population was white alone. In California, only 37.7% of the population was white alone. 

In 2016 the German federal state of Bavaria had a GDP of 568 billion euros. In 2015, its average per capita income was 42,950 euros. The state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, by contrast, had a GDP of 41 billion euros and a per capita GDP of 25,025 euros. 

In 2017, 3 million people of foreign descent lived in Bavaria, amounting to about 23% of the population. Mecklenburg-Vorpommern only had 102,000 people of foreign descent, or 6,3% of the population. 

Some Brexiteers have argued that the UK outside of the EU should follow the "Singapore model". For instance, last November Boris Johnson and Michael Gove urged Theresa May to turn Britain into the Singapore of Europe by cutting taxes and regulation. 

Apart from the fact that such proposals are based on a complete misunderstanding of Singapore's economic system, in terms of immigration, too, it is questionable whether copying Singapore would satisfy hardcore Brexiteers.  

As of 2016, about 64% of Singapore's population was foreign-born, a figure that does not include individuals who have obtained citizenship or have foreign roots. If Brexiteers wanted to reduce immigration by leaving the EU, Singapore is not the right country to emulate.

The reality is that there is no demonstrable connection between poverty and immigration. Many of the richest areas in the world have a higher proportion of immigrants than poorer areas, as the aforementioned examples clearly demonstrate. 

While immigration does not create or exacerbate poverty, there is ample evidence that economic policy does

Between 1993 and 2015 the foreign-born population in the UK rose from 3.8 million to around 8.7 million. This is the era that right-wingers would characterize as a period of "mass migration". 

However, data show that the number of low-income households (known as Households Below Average Incomes, HBAI) increased from less than 8 million in 1979 to over 14 million in 1992, before "mass migration" began. In 2015/2016, the number of HBAI was also about 14 million. 


The aforementioned data suggest that poverty is not caused by immigration, but by failed economic policies. As a result, solving issues such as income inequality, poverty, underemployment, unemployment etc. requires better policies. Xenophobia is the wrong answer to society's economic and social problems.  


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