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  • Lukas Schmid

The left must spearhead immigration justice

Last year, social democrats in Denmark pulled off a decisive election victory, giving their brethren across Europe hope for the political revival of their deteriorating movements. They did so on a platform that recommitted to a strong welfare state and distributive justice, distancing themselves from the neoliberal bug that had infected most of Europe’s social democrats. But the success of their platform has also been attributed to a promise of a more sinister kind: committing to the right’s horridly restrictive – and sometimes blatantly discriminatory and dehumanizing – immigration policies. In another example, the democratic socialists of Germany’s Die Linke have been fighting internal wars over the trajectory of their immigration policy for years, with some adamant that a more restrictive approach will be essential for the takeback of what used to be their core electorate. Labour’s otherwise inspiring 2017 manifesto was devoid of transformative immigration policies, and its somewhat muddled 2019 manifesto has largely failed to deliver on the radical immigration policy overhauls approved at last year’s Labour conference.

This is deeply problematic. The way that immigration is being handled by wealthy states who act as gatekeepers to potential lives of opportunity arguably constitutes one of the most scandalous injustices anywhere in the world. Let’s just recall some of the more publicized atrocities committed by contemporary governments in their quest to deny unlucky and vulnerable people a claim to a life of promise: snatching children from their parents and putting them in cages, all-but illegalizing sea rescue in the Mediterranean, deporting people to their certain deaths, and giving fanatic far-right lunatics free rein to establish ‘law and order’ at borders by trampling on the most basic human rights of immigrants.

It is easy to attribute these crimes to the inadequacy of the governments perpetrating them, and to comfortably cling to the rose-tinted conviction that once true egalitarians take over, all will be remedied. But this attitude is a grave mistake: it casts systemic issues in the colours of contingency.

Immigration justice requires profound structural change

Here are some reasons why. Unilateral state discretion over immigration control allows employees wide bureaucratic power over the direction of migrants’ lives. These employees are barely accountable to their elected superiors, and their acts cannot practically be contested by migrants; often, border officials do not even owe thorough explanation for their decisions. Imagine that: unaccountable employees often have discretionary power to deny entry, repatriate, and detain. Not only is the power vested in these unchecked actors frightening in its own right. It is also clear that the existence of such discretionary power has led to unjustified, harmful, and deadly decisions over migrants’ lives. Horror stories about the consequences of this unaccountable power abound, and a 2013 special report for the American Immigration Council revealed that both physical and verbal violence are widespread in US detention centres. To round this shameful list off, let’s remember that politicians have few incentives to take immigrants’ claims seriously, because they are in no meaningful way accountable to them. The reality that they are exclusively accountable to their citizens reinforces political hostility towards migrants. Nothing seems to be easier than constructing and reinforcing migrants as scapegoats for the grievances terrible politics generate.

It is the left’s duty to put an end to this by proposing sweeping institutional change in the way our immigration systems work. Immigration justice means more than electing governments that respect human rights and display sympathy for the immigrant’s hopes and dreams. Immigration justice is no less than a comprehensive political project to abolish immigrants’ intense vulnerability vis-à-vis their target states, and to give them a voice in the stakes of their own future. There is no way to do this but through political and legal enfranchisement. A just immigration system, in which immigrants can approach target states without fear and with political agency, needs to eviscerate evil at the root: it needs to abolish the state’s ability to decide about immigration unilaterally, without having to institutionally include the voices of the people whose very livelihoods are under scrutiny.

Manufactured resistance to immigration

Embracing heightened immigration, however, is unpopular with the citizenries of western democracies. In a February 2019 Gallup poll, 77% of US-American respondents opined that the influx of ‘large numbers’ of undocumented immigrants into the US constitutes either a ‘critical’ or an ‘important’ threat to the United States. A recent surveyconducted by the Pew Research Center indicated that a mere 10% of Germans, 14% of Swedes, 16% of the French and 16% of Brits are in favour of ‘allowing’ more immigrants into their respective countries. As soon as this is perceived to entail a net increase in immigration, many people are deeply sceptical about giving strong – and benevolent – attention to the injustices faced by migrants. A fair share of this opposition simply stems from brute xenophobia and racism. But this is not the main cause.

Aiding capitalist elites’ pathological need to present scapegoats for the disastrous impacts of their policies, it is the basic insider-outsider structure of states – there are citizens, and then there is everyone else – that engenders the pervasiveness of anti-immigrant attitudes. Every penny deployed to the moral betterment of immigration regimes is a resource that is not directly beneficial to citizens. On a deeper level, people are willing to be coerced by the capitalist state precisely because of the special benefits they are promised to reap from this forced cooperation. What is morally necessary – the prioritisation of outsider’s basic rights over the welfare-furthering of somewhat saturated citizens – flies in the face of this disastrous justification of state authority. The very structure of states leads citizens to dismiss the injustices perpetrated against others as secondary. Of course, all of this is in the interest of global Capital: divide those you rule by constructing and upholding artificial barriers between them.

Capitalism’s disdain for social concerns conditions people to belittle the value of solidarity and negate the primacy of morality for political action. The state’s exclusionary mechanisms reinforce this calamity to generate a disastrous dynamic for the prospects of immigration justice. Under these circumstances, is it politically feasible for socialists to take a decisive stand and fight for the abolishment of unilateral immigration regimes, with the normalizing of heightened immigration as a likely outcome?

What should the left do?

It is a bitter truism that socialists desperately need to start winning elections. Strategic prudence is a value. But prudence must never be made to mean the abandonment of fighting for what’s right.

To start with, we must demand egalitarian politicians formulate radical policies for the systemic status quo. The most pressing issue is always the avoidance of imminent suffering, and we can already do much to at least ameliorate the situation. More and simpler avenues for legal immigration must be created. Walls and fences must be torn down. Border officials must be trained extensively and infused with a solidary and charitable ethos. Legal structures must abolish migrants’ special economic vulnerability. Migrants’ search for dignified employment must be promoted, not prohibited. Hostile environments need to be reversed; resources must be made available to include migrants in the community. This includes the guarantee of dignified housing, adequate healthcare, opportunities for education and cultural participation, and the creation of spaces and programmes that encourage dialogue between the settled citizenry and anxious newcomers. Irregular migrants must be regularized, and all migrants must get the opportunity to become citizens much quicker than is the case at present. The COVID-19 crisis only reinforces the need for such harm-minimizing measures: the marginalization of irregular migrants renders them especially vulnerable to catastrophic challenges to their health and basic dignity.

It is far from evident that the embrace of such an unapologetically pro-migrant stance will reinforce recent electoral havoc. Indeed, these propositions fit neatly into the socialist ethos that has already proven to attract millions of voters in the US and the UK, recent losses notwithstanding. Despite these losses, socialist policy has remained massively popular. Leftist programmes are not only popular because they will make most people better off economically, but because they are essential to create truly democratic societies that are governed by solidarity and empowerment. Despite capital’s best efforts, people want to live in such societies.

Nevertheless, the abolishment of statist unilateralism needs to remain a long-term goal, and socialists must not shy away from pursuing such systemic change and defending it when challenged. Including the voices of immigrants in the border procedures deciding their fates entails the building of new transnational institutions with adjudicating competencies. Such institutions should, via representation, be forced to consider the interests of both immigrants and host-states’ citizens and weigh these considerations according to previously set principles. With political power across the world in the wrong hands, these institutions will never be built. This is why we must prioritize internationalism and fight for socialism everywhere. In the long term, socialist goals will only be attained through a meaningful commitment to thinking, strategizing, and organizing across borders.

* Photo by Radek Homola on Unsplash

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