Rethinking National Identity in the Age of Migration: Demetrios Papademetriou

March 20th, 2012

Demetrios Papademetriou of the Migration Policy Institute’s Transatlantic Council on Migration shares the 2011 Council Statement on what policymakers can do to create stronger and more cohesive societies during a period of rapid social change that is often associated with immigration.

Large-scale immigration has led to unprecedented levels of diversity around the globe, transforming communities in fundamental ways and challenging long and closely held notions of national identity. In recent years, this rapid transformation has coincided with a set of deeper challenges — first and foremost among them the most severe economic downturn in decades. Political leaders thus find themselves having to navigate a tangled web of complex policy dilemmas, from how to respond to economic insecurity; to how to continue to draw benefits from (and make the political case for) globalization; to coming to terms with hybrid identities — all challenges that have caused enormous anxiety and even social unrest.

In the past two years, the backlash against immigration has manifested itself in vocal criticisms of “multiculturalism.” A chorus of European leaders has claimed that the very policies that aimed to weave societies together have instead split them apart, emphasizing difference rather than building community. And as people feel the social fabric of their communities fraying, they have tightened their grip on the things they hold most dear — their identity, language, culture, and values. In response, many countries have narrowed the rights to residence and citizenship and attempted to more rigidly enforce cultural conformity, taking steps whose (predictable) effect has been to isolate — or in some cases penalize — those who fall outside these norms.

The seventh plenary meeting of the Migration Policy Institute’s Transatlantic Council on Migration, which brought together high-level officials from Europe and North America in Berlin in November 2011, focused on what policymakers can do to mitigate the disorienting effects of rapid societal change — especially change tied or perceived to be tied to immigration — in order to create stronger and more cohesive societies. For governments, both the challenge and opportunity has become to create a new definition of “we” based on a more inclusive idea of national identity and belonging, and to convince the broader society that investing in integration is an investment in shared futures.

The Council’s key recommendations for fostering greater cohesiveness are as follows:

  1. Leaders must hone their listening skills to truly understand their electorate’s anxiety about immigration (and related issues); not all concerns are illegitimate, and efforts to ignore or dispute these concerns will only inflame them.
  2. Countries that emphasize a process of belonging and “becoming,” rather than a static sense of “being,” are better able to manage diversity to advantage.
  3. One way of overcoming concerns that large-scale immigration has eroded national identity is to involve all citizens in shaping the identity of the new “we,” thus giving them a sense of ownership in the integration process.
  4. Efforts to curb plural identities are beyond the reach of state authority and will be counterproductive; accepting such identities does not erode social cohesion, whereas limiting their expression can make them more salient.
  5. States must create clear and transparent pathways to permanent residence and citizenship. This will encourage immigrants to make a long-term commitment to society.
  6. Governments should offer practical integration assistance that genuinely helps immigrants negotiate their new environment more effectively and access the same opportunities as natives.
  7. Even though some of the “fault lines” of the identity crisis may point to cultural “conflicts,” the solution may not be in the realm of culture. At their core, integration problems are socioeconomic in nature. Therefore, governments must make their most sustained investments in workplaces and schools.
  8. When a state’s own citizens are suffering, it may be difficult to argue for investments in policies seen as benefiting newcomers. Instead, governments should consider gradually targeting sets of circumstances, like poverty and lack of education; such initiatives (if effective) will benefit immigrants disproportionately.
  9. Legislating cultural practices should be a last resort, not a first impulse. States should create incentives for individuals to move toward certain norms rather than restricting or banning unwanted (but nonetheless legal) cultural practices.
  10. States should signal, both with words and body language, that it is in the society’s interest for immigrants to be full, productive, and completely engaged members of the community in which they live.

This Council Statement results from the meeting of the Transatlantic Council on Migration in November 2011 in Berlin. The meeting’s theme was “National Identity, Immigration, and Social Cohesion: (Re) building Community in an Ever-Globalizing World.” The Council is an initiative of the Migration Policy Institute undertaken in cooperation with its policy partner, the Bertelsmann Stiftung. The Council is a unique deliberative body that examines vital policy issues and informs migration policymaking processes in North America and Europe. The Council’s work is generously supported by the following foundations and governments: Carnegie Corporation of New York, Open Society Foundations, Bertelsmann Stiftung, the Barrow Cadbury Trust (UK Policy Partner), the Luso-American Development Foundation, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, and the governments of Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden.

Excerpted from: Papademetriou, Demetrios G., Rethinking National Identity in the Age of Migration, Council Statement from the 7th Plenary Meeting of the Transatlantic Council on Migration. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, 2012.

Demetrios G. Papademetriou is President and Co-Founder of the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a Washington-based think tank dedicated exclusively to the study of international migration. He is also President of Migration Policy Institute Europe, a nonprofit, independent research institute in Brussels that aims to promote a better understanding of migration trends and effects within Europe; and serves on MPI Europe’s Administrative Council.

He is also the convener of the Transatlantic Council on Migration and its predecessor, the Transatlantic Task Force on Immigration and Integration (co-convened with the Bertelsmann Stiftung). The Council is composed of senior public figures, business leaders, and public intellectuals from Europe, the United States, and Canada.

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