The successful public visibility of a vigilante group working outside the law reflects the intense and growing heat over immigration in America, a country where the foreign-born population has now climbed to 33 million, or roughly 12% of the total population, out of which as many as 12 million are illegal. A proposed immigration reforms package remains deeply contentious, and massive street demonstrations continue across the country by both pro- and anti-reform lobbies. The latter have declared May 1 as Day without Immigrants, when large-scale protests by Latino workers are expected and in which major Hollywood stars like Edward James Olmos and Salma Hayek have already been roped in.
According to a number of opinion polls, a majority of Americans are now wary of foreigners in general and immigrants in particular, a rather momentous turnaround in a country founded by immigrants and whose national consciousness is burnished with the idea of welcoming the worlds huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
In fact, America would hardly be the economic and military superpower it is today without its huge waves of immigrants that started in the 19th century, people who toiled and built its vast infrastructure of roads and railways or helped expand its frontiers and tamed the wild west. Or without those thousands of scientists or engineers fleeing war-torn Europe in the 20th century, who gave America its overpowering lead in technology, innovation and patents.
The growing anti-immigrant backlash in the US is clearly stoked by cultural fears rather than economic anxieties. In fact, on economic terms alone there is enough evidence to suggest that immigration is, and usually has been, a net plus for the expansion and competitiveness of the host economy. Forget legal migrants, even illegal migrants in the US contribute almost 9% of the GDP of the country and keep wages low in crucial sectors like hotels, construction, meat, poultry and farming. In fact, if all undocumented migrant workers in the US packed and left, the effect would be dramatic in terms of dislocation, work stoppage and a big price increase for a variety of daily products or services.
The same economic logic holds true for Europe, a continent only now beginning to come to terms with its declining demography. And which needs farm workers, construction hands, janitors, truck drivers and nurses in the hundreds of thousands. And yet, the continent is becoming harder to get in, not easier.
The growing estrangement between host countries and immigrants is driven by many cultural reasons, one of which, of course, is the post-9/11 sense of cultural paroxysm, at different levels and for diverse reasons, which many western nations have now experienced. The European establishment has been particularly challenged and numbed by the terror attacks in Madrid and London, the consequent discovery of a virulent strain of homegrown fundamental Islam, and the protests during the Danish cartoon controversy.
Another reason is the sharp concentration of immigrants in a few cities in every country, a trend that has altered the demographic profile of every major OECD city rather dramatically and amplified the sense of cultural incursion. Paris has changed much more than France in the past 20 years, Los Angeles much more than the United States and Melbourne much more than Australia. Even Russia, most unlikely of all places, has experienced widespread and continuous inflow of people from the Caucuses and Central Asia since the breakup of the Soviet empire. And it could well have a Muslim majority by the year 2035, a deeply disturbing prospect for a society that has very little experience with multiculturism.
All these developments point to a broader but rather poorly articulated debate on the definition of citizenship, identity and community. Recent events have intensified this soul-searching in many countries, even producing a surprising degree of convergence across the political spectrum, a rare agreement between the political Left and Right. There is belated recognition that citizenship is a precious blend that includes a number of tangible and intangible ingredients, a mix of rights, privileges, responsibilities, obligations and multi-layered social contracts between the individual, state and society. Citizenship is a status that must be earned, not merely acquired in due time by those who choose to locate or work in a specific place.
Unlike India, where the tendency to fall back on safe cliches seems to constantly trump honest debate, the western world is, for the first time, beginning to slowly abandon political correctness and to discuss the social contract implicit in immigration and the multicultural model of society. This is a debate in which India also has a profound stake.
The writer is editor, India Focus