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A bias against immigrants?

Published : Wednesday, 22 January, 2020 at 12:00 AM  Count : 232

Nazarul Islam

Nazarul Islam

Immigration is a complex subject. It is also an intriguing issue that has engaged policy planners for a long time. Many of us, who live in America, have a grasp of the concept; this country is the melting pot for immigrants, who arrive here, from all four corners of our globe. Since Donald Trump was elected to the office of the President, Americans had been expressing their will to check the alarming increase in the number of immigrant, arriving in the country.

However, such facts and figures do come with several caveats!
First, the surge in support for immigration in the United States might simply be a reaction to the xenophobia of the present Trump administration in the US, and could well fade, after he has vacated office. Second, the polls say little about the salience of this major issue--to the two sides of the divide; opponents of immigration might be more motivated than advocates, and thus may have to struggle harder. Finally, it's worth noting that even now, those who support decreasing immigration outnumber those who back increasing it. And this data is just for the US.; other countries may be going quite, in the opposite direction.

Why does the American public seem to have an anti-immigration bias? The bulk of the data shows that immigrants, at least in the US, are a healthy and positive force. They are highly upwardly mobile. They make outsized contributions to technology and industry. They don't push down the wages of native-born workers and in the case of high-skilled immigrants they even raise them. Data reveals that they commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans.

They pay plenty of taxes that help support local and state governments. Again, the immigrants have revitalized dying small towns and blighted neighbourhoods. Why are so many Americans wary of what seems on paper, like an unadulterated service?
One possible reason is that Americans, though more positive toward diversity than those in many other countries, also worry that their culture could be impacted by newcomers. Racial prejudice toward immigrants from non-white countries plays a role as well. And politics may also be a factor; because children of immigrants have traditionally tended to vote for the Democrats, Republicans may fear that immigration poses a threat to their electoral strength.

But on top of all this, anti-immigration sentiment may be intertwined with suspicion of the welfare state. People may overestimate the amount of public resources spent on immigrants. And they may be less willing to distribute government benefits to people from other countries.

That's the upshot of a recent paper by economists Alberto Alesina, Armando Miano and Stefanie Stantcheva. The authors conducted detailed surveys with 24,000 native-born people in six developed Western countries--the US, the UK, France, Germany, Sweden and Italy. What they discovered is indeed, a pervasive tangle of misperceptions.

First, native-born people in all the countries that were surveyed tended to substantially overestimate the number of immigrants. Across the entire demographic and political spectrum, people had thought that the share of immigrants in their countries was about 10 to 15 percentage points higher, than it actually was. They also tended to make judgmental errors about the people coming in, overestimating the share of Muslim immigrants and underestimating the share of Christian ones (except in France). And they tended to underestimate immigrants' share of the highly educated workforce. The researchers also found that people tended to assume that immigrants received more welfare benefits than the native-born.

Advanced nations have welfare states and are unlikely to abandon the same setup that had evolved through decades of justice and 'FairPlay'. Instead, they will likely try to shut their gates to newcomers seeking opportunities.

And now, let us move to the subcontinent to see how immigration is likely impact lives. Recent protests carried out in India, against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens have now entered a critical moment. Whether they transform India or dissolve into the footnotes of history, will depend on how the movement now expands further.

So far, it has been a single-issue movement. It must become multi-issue by spreading to all corners of India, and encompassing all Indians. For it to expand into a larger anti-Narendra Modi government protest, it must include everything from JNU to GDP.
These protests have had two main weaknesses. First, it had been cast in terms of constitutional rights and secularism, and did not appealing enough to attract broad swathes of Hindu society. Second, the protestors lacked and their organizational backbone. This might have been a source of strength earlier, because it complicated the BJP's efforts to paint the protests as opposition-manufactured unrest. But this strength can quickly mutate into weakness and imperil its capacity to grow.

In the absence of effective leadership and an army of dedicated workers, these protests risk fizzling out. Right now, the CAA-NRC protests seem unlikely to affect the popularity of the Narendra Modi government. In fact, as I had argued earlier, they might even lead to more Hindu consolidation behind the BJP.

The protests have generated tremendous energy, especially among the youth. Lakhs of people have poured into the streets across India - in cities, towns and villages. This invaluable energy now needs to be channelised and strategically utilised to build a broader movement.
Around the core issue of the CAA-NRC, other material issues should be attached to recruit powerful groups such as farmers and workers in the movement.

Attaching too many issues, and diluting the core demands, might easily turn away even the people attending the protests now. So, a successful transition from a single-issue protest to a broader anti-government movement would require incredible political skill to achieve. It would require resolving contradictions, building solidarities, and devising a common platform and strategy. All this requires strong leadership and is way beyond the ability of urban activists, so it would necessarily require political parties to step up from being quiet allies and actively wade into leadership roles. Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati have already stayed away from the prospect of forging a large opposition front against the CAA led by the Congress party.

The nationwide protests preceding Indira Gandhi's Emergency had these two indispensable characteristics that the current protests lack: strong leadership and organisational strength.

They are no equivalents of Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) or Morarji Desai, leaders of immense national stature, who transformed student grievances in Gujarat and Bihar into a national movement that seriously challenged the government. Even the likes of Kanhaiya Kumar and Chandrashekhar Azad, the only prominent leaders of these protests, have limited appeal that is often overblown. None of them has won any elections (Kanhaiya lost by more than four lakh votes in his hometown Begusarai).

JP and Morarji Desai succeeded in expanding their movement because they skilfully tapped into latent anger over economic issues: unemployment and inflation. They successfully convinced a broad cross-section of Indians that the removal of Indira Gandhi was the only solution for hunger, poverty and unemployment. The RSS and socialists actively backed these protests, and many of the student protesters were from the ABVP. Workers were effectively mobilised by leaders like George Fernandes, who led a devastating 22-day nationwide Railway strike.

The recent Bharat Bandh strike backed by 10 central trade union organisations received a tepid response. Outside of Kerala and Bengal, few would have been even aware of the strike. Even though the Congress-affiliated INTUC was among the participants, Rahul Gandhi merely tweeted his support.

To be clear, single-issue movements can be disastrous for the government. The anti-corruption movement of 2011 was ruinous for the credibility of the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government, but anti-corruption was a more politically potent issue than the NRC-CAA. Unlike the feckless UPA of that time, the Modi government has got a powerful counter-narrative, framed in terms of hard-line nationalism, and a mass leader.

The fact that Sonia Gandhi has signalled a more assertive Congress role in the protests is a welcome sign. "Congress Working Committee must categorically declare that millions of Congress workers will stand shoulder to shoulder with people of India in their struggle for equality, justice and dignity," Sonia Gandhi said.

The Congress has been repeatedly promising nationwide protests on the economy since November. 'Promising' is the keyword here. They now have the opportunity to bandwagon on these protests, and transform them into a serious political challenge for the Modi government. The moment calls for a national leadership like that provided by Mamata Banerjee in Bengal
In all likelihood, the Supreme Court won't say anything significant in its 22 January hearing on the CAA-NRC, and postpone the matter to the next hearing. Kashmir provides a sobering template in this regard.

The Modi government probably will not relent on either the CAA or the NPR. The protests still have momentum now, but setbacks, crackdowns and the setting in of fatigue are powerful headwinds. The protests have almost stopped in Uttar Pradesh.
Before long, either a new course of action will have to be forged, or we might witness this newly released energy dissipate.
Let's wait and see...

The writer is a former educator
based in Chicago

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