Unscrambling Immigration: Saskia Sassen

May 19th, 2011

Opinion by Saskia Sassen, the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology and Co-Chair, The Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University. She is one of the leading thinkers on globalization, immigration and global cities.

Designing better policy to govern immigration means abandoning an array of cherished policies and beliefs about how the world works and what are desirable aims.”

We have an “immigration crisis” every time we have a crisis about no matter what – high unemployment due to the economic recession of 2008-2010, the uprisings to demand democracy in North Africa, the attack on the World Trade Center, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and on and on. Much of this is not related to immigration. But mostly we blame the immigrants for contributing to the crisis. It is axiomatic in the history of the US and that of the major European countries.

This raises several questions.

One is that we should know this by now and not need to scramble in response to the sudden influx of 25,000 refugees from North Africa as are the French and the Italians, or have the US government paralyzed on the matter of immigration reform, or Arizona’s governor authorizing (unconstitutional) searches to establish the legal status of people stopped for matters not related to immigration. Our (still) rich and highly developed countries, with solid histories of electoral political systems, have simply not been able to address immigration in a reasonable and workable way.

A second question raised by what seems to be a permanent link between immigration and whatever crisis affects us, is whether this axiom is a projection from our receiving societies or is capturing a reality. In either case it indicates we are not handling immigration adequately. If it is a projection it is a sort of ideological exit from confronting the real world. It is mostly easier for politicians to believe that the cause of major crises is external –such as too many immigrants coming into one’s country. It is easy to blame immigrants for everything. However, if it is a reality, we should roll up our sleeves and go to work on designing better policy.

Designing better policy to govern immigration means abandoning an array of cherished policies and beliefs about how the world works and what are desirable aims. Here I include such diverse policies as opening up largely traditional economies to foreign multinationals and financial services firms, and pushing these countries to take on loans they do not need and will only be able to repay by cutting government spending on health, education, and other people’s development goals. Both of these policy goals have been the key frame that rich countries have imposed on poor countries. The result has been a large-scale destruction of labour intensive economies that may have been “inefficient” but were also a sticky web that incorporated vast numbers of people –where nobody was allowed to sink in complete hopelessness. Emigration became the only way to feed the family. This explains the beginning of whole new migrations from Africa’s sub-Saharan countries. In short, we actively made the conditions that generated these new migrations into Europe.

Better policy will also mean addressing the fact that our current immigration politics rest on the unilateral power of national states and on a sort of carte blanche to violate the human rights of immigrants. This is unsustainable in the long run. These types of violations are a cancer at the heart of our liberal democracies that will only grow, and eventually hurt all of us, including the legal residents.

If my son, a graduate and prize-winning student, decides to write a great American novel, a new The Grapes of Wrath, and spends time on a California farm working with undocumented immigrants, what will happen when mounted patrols raid the farm and pursue the fleeing workers? He will run with them. He will have no time to show his passport. He will run and jump into the river and drown along with his undocumented fellow workers; incidents like this have happened in the US.

This is just an extreme example to illustrate that citizens, i.e., everyone, will eventually get caught up in raids against undocumented, just as it is happening right now in Arizona or in France, unless we roll up our sleeves and go to work on designing better policy.

Saskia Sassen is the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology and co-chairs The Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University (www.saskiasassen.com). Her recent books are Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages ( Princeton University Press 2008), A Sociology of Globalization (W.W.Norton 2007), and the 4th fully updated edition of Cities in a World Economy (Sage 2011). The Global City came out in a new fully updated edition in 2001. Her books are translated into twenty-one languages. She contributes regularly to www.OpenDemocracy.net and the Huffington Post.

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