Immigrants, refugees face U.S., European nationalism

President Trump wants to build a wall with Mexico.  The United Kingdom wants out of the European Union.  The Netherlands blocks the Turkish Foreign Minister from campaigning.  Gov. LePage wants to keep more refugees out of Maine.

What these policies have in common is a desire to keep a high degree of national identity alive in face of mounting immigration.

That’s “nationalism” and it’s sweeping much of the world.  It is incorrectly labeled “populism,” which applies to policies, mostly economic, to support average people against the interests of the rich and powerful.  The nearest politician to populism is Bernie Sanders not billionaire Trump.

Countries like Britain, the Netherlands and France have long had immigrant populations, usually supplied from their colonies abroad.  Germany has imported Turkish workers to support its strong economic growth.

Under the EU, which aims at creating a single continental economy much like the American, workers are allowed to take up residence in any of its 28 countries.  As in the U.S. system, the efficiency expected from a single market requires a single labor force.

Layered over the presence of foreigners in European countries, who may gradually assume citizenship where they live, is the influx of refugees.

In the U.S., refugees, mainly economic but sometimes political, may enter the country without permission.  Seen as refugees, they are “undocumented immigrants.”  Seen as lawbreakers, they are “illegal aliens.”

Some Americans oppose undocumented or illegal residents because they may threaten to take jobs that otherwise might go to long-time citizens or change the racial mix in which white men have dominated since the founding of the country.

This opposition has a long history.  While Chinese were imported to build railroads, work that American did not want to do, they were blocked from immigration until the 1940s, when China was America’s wartime ally.  Interestingly, denying votes to women until 1920 reflecting much the same sentiment.

Unlike Europe, the U.S. had a long traditional of allowing, even inviting, immigration as a way of taking control of vast territory.  But implicit in this policy was the understanding that the immigrants should look like those already in the country.  In short, they should come from Europe.

In Maine, there was once a movement called KPOOM – Keep People Out of Maine.  Now, LePage seems to agree with that movement if the newcomers are refugees, who are different from the majority in the least racially mixed state in the Union.

The big exception to U.S. open immigration was Africans, who did not ask to come, but were brought by force.  They were not recognized as being eligible to be Americans.  It took the Civil War plus a hundred years to change that view.

Today’s anti-immigrant policy promotes the survival of a mentality that does not welcome people who don’t look like the majority.  The reason is that the majority can see itself becoming the minority.

In Europe, nationalism based on color and culture has deeper roots.  That creates a problem of divided loyalty.  For example, the Turks in the Netherlands may have Dutch passports, but they can also vote in Turkish elections.  That’s why a Turkish official wanted to campaign in the Netherlands.

The same dual nationality problem, maintaining divided loyalties, arises in other European countries like Germany.

Then there’s the EU.  In Britain, an island country, people have become uneasy with what seemed like an invasion of people from eastern Europe.  While ex-colonials might not be white, they behaved like the British.  But Poles and Rumanians obviously bring their own culture.

The prime force behind Brexit is keeping different Europeans out.  The prime cost to Britain may be losing the benefits flowing from open economic links with the Continent.

Add the refugees to all this.  As the result of devastating conflict in the Arab Middle East, partly caused by the policies of the U.S. and its European friends, millions of people have lost their homes and their livelihoods.  They fled to the nearest area where they could find economic stability and shelter – Europe.

Europe as a whole was not ready for them and had no policy, leaving it up to individual countries.  Germany, still overcoming its Hitler legacy, opened its doors, at considerable risk to Chancellor Angela Merkel.  Other countries, through which a flood of refugees had to pass, could not handle the influx.

Simple nationalism, dual nationality or open-ended refugee status are not the answer.  Workers and refugees moving across borders are no longer unusual.  They are the new normal.

National policies are needed that are clear, understandable and possibly uniform across the world.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil is a former local, state, national and international organization official. He is an author and newspaper columnist.