Σάββατο, 4 Σεπτεμβρίου 2010

Illegal Immigration: Let's Face It, It Is a Serious Problem

A New York Times Op-ed once again provides the impetus for a discussion on an issue which, strangely enough, is a problem the United States and Greece share - illegal immigration. The op-ed is more focused on the gubernatorial elections in Arizona, but it does highlight the position taken on immigration by the incumbent Governor and deplores what the columnist sees as fear-mongering used to promote a strong policy against illegal immigrants. 

Greece has seen an influx of immigrants over the past two decades, initially from Albania (just out of a strict stalinist regime; Albania shares a lengthy land border with Greece and has a sizable Greek minority of its own), the former Soviet Union, and, as of late, from many Asian and African countries; most illegal immigrants come through Turkey, but many manage to cross the land borders of Greece and its northern neighbors. Following a number of mass legitimization of immigrants (mostly in the late '90s), there exists now a significant number of legal immigrants (many of them on their way to citizenship, after a recent law) alongside the illegal immigrants. Immigrants typically live either in the country, where they perform agrarian labor, or in the poorer neighborhoods of large cities.

The questions in the public discussion of immigration are the same in the States and in Greece: Do immigrants steal jobs from natives? Are they responsible for a rise in crime? Should we enforce more stringent border controls? Should we just kick them out of our country?

Well, you already know that conservatives usually answer "yes" to all these questions, while liberals say "no". Public order carries the day in the conservative camp; compassion and solidarity in the liberal camp. Unfortunately, usually neither side takes the time to seriously tackle these questions and to dispel their apparent simplicity. So, here's my take, based on the Greek experience:

Question 1. Do immigrants steal jobs from natives?
Immigrants, in Greece at least, typically are unskilled workers who, at the beginning at least, do not speak Greek. They can only provide manual labor in labor-intensive sectors of the economy, usually agriculture, construction, and light manufacture. There was shortage of hands in these industries, because Greeks themselves were avoiding them; most unemployed Greeks are secondary- or tertiary-education graduates who find it beneath them to perform manual labor. So, essentially, no competition exists between Greeks and foreigners for jobs. In fact, many proponents of a pay-as-you-go social security system (as is the case in Greece) welcome immigrants and push for their legalization, so that the social security system can benefit from the corresponding contributions, in order to better provide pensions for those already retired. I think conservatives in Greece are wrong on this one and that liberals are right.

Question 2. Do immigrants contribute to a rise in crime?
Definitely so. Illegal immigrants, that is. This is not because they carry "crime" genes in their DNA, but because their illegal entry into Greece (and, I guess, other countries) is facilitated by a criminal organization. This means that their first contacts, when coming to Greece, are the mafiosi who managed to get them here. And, of course, known criminals from abroad can be found only among illegal immigrants; they would be denied entry, if they sought to enter the country through the legal channels. But the single most important factor in their criminal activity is their illegal status. They have to live and work under the radar, for fear of deportation. This means that they work illegally (undeclared and not subject to social security contributions and benefits and, of course, taxation) and that they cannot resort to the state's authorities. Any disputes can only be dealt with extra-judicially, amongst themselves, because if they show up in a police department, they will be arrested and deported. This leads to the formation of gangs of illegal immigrants (often connected to the criminal organizations bringing them to the country in the first place). And, of course, this means that many illegal immigrants are denied their fundamental human rights, mostly women, and are treated as slaves within their own community, not having recourse to any authority to escape their situation. What's more, there is no reassurance that religious extremism is not practiced in these communities. I can't even bear to think that female circumcision might be practiced in the capital city of my own country. So, the conservatives seem to be right on this one, but they have to acknowledge the underlying causes of the surge in crime.

Question 3. Should we enforce more stringent border controls?
Absolutely. This is totally different than deciding on whether to accept immigrants or refugees and on what grounds. The law should always be observed and enforced. Failure to do so only reinforces our country's image as one of lawlessness. This attracts not only persons willing to work for a new beginning in their life (who, by and large, prove beneficial to the societies accepting them), but persons who want to establish criminal enterprises here. The signal such failure sends is that Greece is not serious about enforcing its own laws and that its security forces are lacking. This is not to say that excessive force should be used or that ships carrying immigrants should be sunk or that their lives should be endangered. I think that conservatives are more on the correct side of this one.

Question 4. What should we do with illegal immigrants?
Goodness. This is a very difficult and complicated question (and leads to other questions, e.g. should we allow access of illegal immigrants to public services - schools - hospitals?). I have yet to come up with a definitive answer. Should illegality be rewarded? Absolutely not. But should we close our eyes to people being mistreated, because they are afraid to so much as talk to a police officer? If we legalize everyone who is currently living in Greece illegally, then we will surely provoke an even larger wave of illegal immigration. If, on the other hand, we turn a blind eye to the situation within the immigrant communities, we do not have enough police power to prevent abuses and the rise in crime. And, of course, we cannot ensure that those we deport will not come back, particularly since we are not doing a good job of guarding our borders in the first place.

So, the final question remains open. Probably a mix of legalizing some immigrants and deporting others would be necessary - but, then, how do we choose whom to deport and whom to legalize; and what do we do in between? I guess this is a conversation I'll have to continue in subsequent posts.

2 σχόλια:

  1. Regarding border controls I think that you missed one other parameter, that probably both liberals and conservatives ignore, and that is the cost of border controls. And I am not talking just about the disproportionate burden that a small 'passage' country like Greece faces. Both the US and the EU probably spend much more on border control than what that control affords them in the prevention of social costs (crime, social security etc.). And, in the absence of some technological or tactical assymetry with the people that wish to circumvent the controls, the more strict the controls become the less cost-effective they will be.

    Also I think you exaggerate the signal that lax border controls send to criminals. If the effort put in to immigration control at the border were put into interior crime prevention I think that would send a much stronger signal to possible criminals, both outside and inside the country.

    The deeper problem of course is a preoccupation with the borders themselves, as if they somehow define our society and a mystical belief that act of crossing a border is all-important. But this is an outmoded way of thinking. As as less and less of our society's institutions depend on the concept of borders we will find that we need to change our mode of thinking about societal problems. Immigration is, in my mind, not a problem related to population movement (which is illdefined today) but about obligations and entitlements. It is our old mode of thinking that oversimplifies the problem as that of a collective movement of the desperate, poor and ragged victims of wars. But the reality is much more complicated and ranges from the wife of the temporary visa'd PhD engineer in the US to the virtuoso musician from the former soviet bloc to the afghanistani computer hacker to the victim of women's trafficking. The possibilities are too many to lump them together as a problem of "immigration". The result of this lumping are inefficient regulations and costly enforcement.

  2. Very well put - your whole comment. It goes to prove, if anything, that there are, indeed, many parameters, which do not feature prominently, if at all, on these discussions; you have certainly given me food for thought and I am going to think a lot about your points, before my next post on immigration. And another issue, which I know that you can very eloquently write or speak about is the assimilation of immigrants in the societies that receive them and their road to possible citizenship or voting rights. Many things to discuss!