While Europe lets refugees die in the Mediterranean, pragmatism is slowly prevailing in the United States. That has to do with a question of power as well.
Military ships in the Mediterranean, more money for sealing off borders, confronting the smuggling – the catch phrases with which Europe seeks to find answers to arriving refugees and the catastrophes off the coasts of the European Union sound old fashioned if we look to a country that has been carrying on a bitter debate about immigration for years: the United States.
European politics appear to be operating under the motto, “learning from America is learning to win,“ in their attempt at a solution. Toughness instead of humanity, crisis intervention instead of real help. Therefore, a closer look at the debate is worthwhile to understand where Europe can learn something and where U.S. politics are a bad example.
Today, more than 41 million immigrants – that is, people who are not U.S. citizens by birth – live in the U.S., whose founding as a nation is based exclusively on immigrants and their ancestors. It was the religiously-motivated pilgrim forefathers from England, and later Irish and Germans, who set forth for America out of economic hardship.
In addition to them, there were the political refugees who finally founded a new nation from the colonies in the New World in 1776. The idea of this melting pot has become a concept that is entwined in the founding myth of the U.S. and still serves as a characteristic of the society today.
The Promise Ends on the Southern Border
Yet, the so nicely conceived melting pot idea is no longer valid, as the elite rule the country. They like to celebrate themselves for their global competency from Asia to Latin America. However, for most, any promise whatsoever ends at the southern border of the United States.
More than 11 million immigrants are illegal – undocumented. Fleeing from violence, corruption, political regimes and economic hardship, most of those from Central America come to what they perceive to be a “promised land.” Since the U.S. has gotten over its difficult economic recession, the number of refugees has risen by leaps and bounds, among them thousands of children who embark on the dangerous path alone.
Primarily, conservative Republicans see the illegal immigrants, who comprise 3.5 percent of the population, as a massive problem. Marco Rubio, who would like to be a presidential candidate in 2016 and is himself the child of Cuban immigrants, recently made his priority clear: to secure the borders and prevent refugees from arriving in the U.S. or staying there.
In doing so, Rubio stands as an example for the Republicans and conservative voters. The fears of the immigrants are simple: fear of losing jobs, fear of economic decline and the “usual” worries about criminalization and foreign domination.
Really Low Labor Costs
At the same time, the conservative politicians’ position is hypocritical in an economic context. To be sure, one advocates not allowing immigrants into the country, increasing border patrols and erecting a solid fence at the border with Central America. At the same time, millions of illegals, who work for just a few dollars, are prevalent in the powerful agricultural sector. Those who are undocumented constitute more than 5 percent of the total work force in the country.
Industry, favored by the Republicans, lives in fact on this cheap labor force without rights that keeps salaries low and that, without social security, doesn’t live off of state welfare. An illegal is a good immigrant because he costs the nation nothing and supports the economy.
The White Man’s Fear
Apart from the economic factors, many white Americans fear losing dominance. Melting pot aside, since the founding of the United States, it was always the white man who dominated political as well as economic control. Through demographic change, thanks to legal as well as illegal immigration, this hegemony is now endangered. It is therefore also the threat of losing power that forces the Republicans to open the immigration debate. They will not give up their position of arming and sealing off the borders. But they are willing – and here America is further along than Europe – to discuss what comes after.
What comes next with the refugees who are living in the country? In regard to this question, it is more a matter of power than humanitarianism for the Republicans and not just a few Democrats. The votes of Latinos in the country will be influential in the election next year, and many of their biographies are refugee stories.
Barack Obama, who once ran on the promise of reforming immigration policy as president, has continually failed due to Republican opposition. Last year he used an executive order to mandate secure residency status to all those with children born in the U.S. who have lived there for at least five years. A ban on the deportation of children who escape alone has already been in existence since 2012.
The Methods of the U.S. Border Patrol
The executive order tactic does not suit the Republicans and they are currently trying to block it legally. Yet no contender for the White House can disregard the question of immigration reform. It is not for nothing that Jeb Bush emphasizes again and again that his wife is Mexican.
Europe can by no means look to the methods of the U.S. Border Patrol as a model, but rather out of the need to find a solution for the people. The U.S. didn’t act for decades, and is now engaging in a debate that affects millions. That the question of power is at the center of the debate may be cynical. But as long as discussion arises through pragmatism that places people in the foreground, and doesn’t just always see the immigration question as a bothersome problem, it doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
In the best case, the unshakable belief in opportunity will help American society along with their pragmatism. In this regard, Europe can, and, in fact should, learn from America.