Opinion and Editorial

Why deport immigrants?

Joseph Chamie & Barry Mirkin
Filed on December 27, 2010

The world as we know it emerged out of the ceaseless wandering of humans on the planet and, more recently, with migrations of millions across national borders. That trend of globalisation could be reversed as growing numbers of political parties and movements around the world call for sterner restrictions on immigration and immediate removal of those unlawfully residing within their countries.

This could be more than an empty threat as such parties gain in established democracies. Examples abound: the Dutch Freedom Party, the German National Democratic Party, the British National Party, the French National Front, the Italian Northern League, the Irish National Party, the Israeli Yisrael Beitenu, the Indian Shiv Sena, the Sweden Democrats Party, the Danish People’s Party, the Spanish People’s Party, the Norwegian Progress Party, the Austrian Freedom Party, the Flemish Interest Party, the True Finns Party, the Swiss People’s Party, the Australian First Party and the American Tea Party.

Resistance to immigration, running against the modern tide of globalisation, is an early and major plank for many of these political parties. Particularly visible and forceful, often striking a sensitive nerve among much of the public, is their fierce opposition to illegal immigration. For example, a year after voting to ban minarets, Swiss voters in November approved the referendum backed by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party for automatic deportation of foreign-born nationals convicted &of crimes.

Calls for increased deportation of unauthorised migrants are reinforced by the global economic recession, severity of governmental austerity measures and high levels of unemployment. Recent electoral gains by nativist parties at the ballot box have intensified pressure on leaders of every political stripe to respond to the presence of illegal migrants. Exacerbating the situation are continuing high numbers of people attempting to immigrate illegally. For example, every month an estimated 10,000 men and women, most from North Africa and South Asia, cross the Greek-Turkish border illegally.

Fueling calls for increased deportations are frustrations and disappointments with multiculturalism and assimilation, contributing to anti-immigrant sentiments. Various national leaders and party officials — most recently in Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland — have expressed serious doubts about the success of immigrant integration, especially among those who differ religiously and ethnically from their host communities. Remarks by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, were unequivocal with regard to immigration, stating that attempts to build a multicultural society, living side by side and enjoying one another, have utterly failed. Some go further, such as the leader of the Sweden Democrats, claiming that the population growth of the Muslim immigrants was the greatest foreign threat to his country since World War II.

And no doubt, the heightened security concerns as a result of past terrorist tragedies and uncovered threats produce additional pressures to deport illegal migrants, particularly those with suspect leanings. Although many of those involved in terrorist acts were in the country legally, this distinction has not diminished public demands for increased deportations. Removal of unauthorised migrants is often a politically sensitive matter for governments, especially in the international context. Consequently, some countries, in particular those that do not always observe due legal process and internationally recognised protocols on migrant rights, avoid providing timely, accurate information on migrants deported or expelled. For instance, United Nations officials estimate that last year Angola expelled 160,000 Congolese, while the Democratic Republic of Congo expelled 51,000 Angolans. Malaysia in 2005 ordered the mass expulsion of more than 400,000 illegal migrant workers mainly from neighbouring Indonesia.

Other countries regularly publish annual figures and other data on those deported. While no doubt incomplete, this information provides an up-to-date sketch of the nature of migrant deportations. The country deporting the largest number of unauthorised migrants is the United States. This should not be unexpected, however, given that the US has the largest number of migrants — 43 million, as well as the largest number of unauthorised migrants — approximately 10.8 million. The number of persons removed from the US in 2009 was 393,289, a record high and nearly an eightfold increase over the level just 15 years earlier. About a third of recent US removals were convicted criminals, most involved in illegal drugs, traffic offenses and immigration violations. This proportion has declined considerably since the early 1990s when about 70 per cent of the removals were convicted criminals.

Other top deporting nations include: South Africa (165,270), Greece (68,191), the United Kingdom (64,750) and Libya (53,842). Even in countries where mass regularisation programmes have been implemented in the recent past, such as in Greece, Italy and Spain, tens of thousands of illegal migrants continue to be deported every year. Attempts to discuss international migration in international forums, such as the United Nations, have not advanced much. Calls for shared responsibility fall on deaf ears. With economic recovery reported to be underway, demands from various business sectors for more migrant workers — both skilled and unskilled — will intensify, as it has in past recoveries. As a result, countries will face the difficult task of balancing the need for economic growth and additional migrant workers with the political and social consequences of increased immigration. Failure to properly balance these powerful, but opposing forces will in all likelihood lead to heightened social tensions, rising political extremism and increased governmental paralysis, especially for democratic societies.

Illegal entry is a major means through which low-skilled foreign workers join the labour force in many industrialised countries. In the United States, for example, these workers account for 5 percent of the labour force, but are more vital to those sectors that rely on low-skilled labour intensively, including farming, construction, landscaping, low-end manufacturing, the hospitality industry, building maintenance and family care-giving. The US Secretary of Agriculture recently warned that the nation has three options concerning immigration and food prices: pay substantially higher prices if more unauthorised workers are removed from the United States; import substantially more food from other countries, raising food-safety concerns; or pass comprehensive immigration reform that addresses labour shortages in the agriculture industry.

Of course, governments may choose to ignore or downplay the presence of large numbers of migrants residing unlawfully within their borders. Or, they may decide — as has often been the case — to postpone confronting this contentious issue in hopes the political climate will improve. However, as has been observed in country after country, citizens increasingly reject government’s ostrich-like behaviour and promised-filled postponements as viable options and demand concrete action. Consequently, the calls for increased and immediate deportation of unauthorised migrants continue to mount.

Joseph Chamie is research director at the &Center for Migration Studies, and Barry &Mirkin is an independent consultant

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