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Growing Demographic Tensions

October 10, 2007


You would have to be a hermit without access to any news source not to have heard about the immigration debate going on in the United States. Some presidential candidates are vying for the label “toughest candidate on illegal aliens,” believing such a position will give them a leg up with the voting public. The U.S. isn’t the only country wrestling with the challenge of immigration (legal or illegal). My colleague Tom Barnett posted a note on his blog about a slight crack in Japan’s xenophobic shell [Japan is Changing]. Tom wrote:

“Demographically speaking, this experiment-seguing-into-the-new-reality has been in the works for over a decade. For Japan, the truth gets denied (‘We’ll technologize the problem away!’), then opposed (‘Maintain our unique identity!’), then accepted (‘We must change who we are.’). Within a decade, you’ll read stories of Japan’s cultural ‘opening’ that your parents would find ‘inconceivable!'”

The Washington Post article that prompted Tom’s comment was about the effects of a 1990 law that permitted members of the Japanese diaspora to immigrate to Japan [“In Traditionally Insular Japan, a Rare Experiment in Diversity,” by Lori Aratani, 6 October 2003.]

“Five years ago, in [Hamamatsu, a] coastal city southwest of Tokyo, Mari Matsumoto sank her life savings into building a school for the children and grandchildren of immigrants coming to Japan. But at Mundo de Alegra (World of Happiness), the students aren’t what one might expect: Children with Japanese faces and names like Haruo and Tomiko dart around the two-story building chattering in Spanish and Portuguese. The school is the result of an unusual social experiment. Faced with labor shortages, the Japanese government opened the doors in 1990 to allow immigrants to come to the country — so long as they were of Japanese descent. Government officials thought they would blend into the country’s notoriously insular society more easily than people from other ethnic backgrounds. But many found they didn’t quite fit. Their names and faces were Japanese, but they didn’t speak the language. They didn’t understand local customs, such as the country’s stringent system for sorting garbage into multicolored containers. In cities such as Hamamatsu, where many settled, government officials and Japanese neighbors didn’t know what to make of newcomers who seemed familiar but foreign at the same time.”

This isn’t so much an immigration policy as a “right to return” policy. The underlying issue that prompted the policy, however, remains the same — in many developing countries, labor shortages are knocking on the door. In recent weeks, some U.S. cities that had passed strict laws against employers who hired illegal immigrants have repealed those laws because they now understand their full economic impact. The point is that immigration is an economic as well as social issue. No where is this dilemma more keenly demonstrated than in Japan.

“Despite the frictions [in Hamamatsu] and in other communities, pressure is building in Japan to take in more immigrants, forcing the country to reconsider its traditional bias against outsiders. Its population is aging and shrinking. Analysts say Japan must find new sources of labor if it is to preserve its economic power and support its retirees. … But even as officials here tout their international credentials, they struggle to manage the diversity.”

Japanese leaders might recognize the country’s need for change, but actually changing is proving much more problematic. That raises the question of what kind of culture is most resilient — one that maintains its ties to the past or one that changes with the times? Longevity demonstrates a certain resilient quality, but, as Japan’s conundrum demonstrates, it lacks other resilient qualities.

“The pressure to let in more immigrants is building. Population experts project that by 2050, Japan’s population, about 128 million in 2005, will shrink to 95 million, about 40 percent of whom will be 65 or older. By some estimates, Japan will lose more than 4 million workers. ‘With the age of globalization, these borders are going to open up,’ said Fariborz Ghadar, director of the Center for Global Business Studies at Pennsylvania State University. ‘Unless they don’t want to see their economy grow as rapidly, they’re going to have to do something about it.’ Recently, the country struck an agreement with the Philippines to bring in qualified nurses and certified care workers. ‘In the near future, Japan must make a decision to receive immigrants into this country,’ said Kazuaki Tezuka, professor of labor and social law at the University of Chiba, who has studied immigration policy around the world.”

Being an island nation, Japan has a much easier time controlling illegal immigration. Countries with land borders wrestle with the challenges of both legal and illegal immigration. Switzerland is one such nation that is currently facing a national immigration crisis [“Swiss Fury at Foreigners Boiling Over,” by Molly Moore, Washington Post, 9 October 2007]. The Swiss have traditionally been known for their lack of emotion — a place where things run like clockwork and where a picture postcard scene awaits around every bend in the road. But some pretty ugly things are happening there right now.

“At 1:30 a.m., Antonio da Costa heard a knock at the back entrance of the McDonald’s restaurant where he worked as a janitor after-hours. He opened the door, he recalled in an interview. There stood two men, each gripping a chain saw. One yanked the cord on his saw, stepped toward da Costa and shouted above the roaring machine: ‘We don’t need Africans in our country. We’re here to kill you!’ The two masked assailants cornered da Costa and began raking him with the whirring chain-saw blades. They slashed one arm to the bone, nearly sliced off his left thumb and hacked his face, neck and chest, the 37-year-old Angolan said, his voice quavering as he recounted the May 1 attack. The gruesome assault in a suburb of Zurich — consistently ranked in international surveys as one of the world’s most livable cities — dramatized the surge in racism and xenophobia as Switzerland confronts its most difficult social transformation in modern times. Today, more than one in five people living in Switzerland are foreign-born, the second-highest percentage among countries in Europe. One of the world’s oldest democracies is at the center of Western Europe’s most divisive political debate: to embrace an increasingly globalized, multicultural society or to retreat into social isolation in an effort to preserve eroding traditional identities.”

In other words, Switzerland faces the same dilemma as Japan with one big difference — immigrants are already living in Switzerland in large numbers. As a result, emotions are running as high in Switzerland’s debate over immigration as they are in the U.S. — maybe even higher.

“Across Switzerland, anti-foreigner and anti-Islamic attitudes have become so pervasive on the streets, in politics and within governmental institutions that the United Nations, European Union, Amnesty International and Switzerland’s own Federal Commission Against Racism have expressed alarm in recent months. The theme is dominating the campaign for national parliamentary elections Oct. 21 and is crystallized in a controversial campaign poster showing three white sheep kicking a black sheep off a Swiss flag above the slogan, ‘For more security.’ The sign is the creation of the anti-immigration Swiss People’s Party, which in three decades has grown from a fringe group to the party with the largest number of seats — 55 of the 200 — in parliament’s lower house, the National Council, and a major player in the coalition government. On Saturday, counter-demonstrators threw rocks and bottles at Swiss People’s Party protesters during a political rally in front of the national parliament building. Police fired tear gas to break up the melee.”

Racism is never pretty. While Swiss People’s Party leaders insist their positions are aimed at people breaking laws not at particular races of people, such policies always attract their strongest support from racists. Many of the same arguments, of course, are being made by U.S. presidential candidates who have taken strong stands against illegal immigration. In Europe, these arguments raise the specter of a different time.

“The party is now calling for a national referendum on banning minarets on mosques and another on allowing deportation of a family if one of its members younger than 18 is convicted of a crime. It is also pushing to repeal the federal law making discrimination and incitement to racial hatred a crime. ‘These campaigns remind me of the worst times in Europe between 1930 and 1938,’ said Yves Patrick Delachaux, a Geneva police officer and author who has made a career of combating racism in his police department. ‘The same types of posters were used to encourage people to kick the Jews out. We have to be very careful with such propaganda.’ Switzerland’s Federal Commission Against Racism warned in a report last month that racial discrimination has become institutionalized in government agencies and that the centuries-old Swiss tradition of community decision-making has been corrupted by xenophobia.”

Every nation has the right (even the duty) to decide immigration policies. There is a danger, however, that genuine economic and security concerns can result in hatred and racism if the nature of the debate is not elevated above racism and emotion. Good immigration policies make good economic and social sense. Legal immigrants should be welcomed and accepted — they bring with them talent, diversity, and strength. Concerns over illegal immigration are unfortunately coloring the immigration picture around the world. Such developments, left unchecked, could generate negative ripples through the international economy since globalization requires the relatively free movement of resources, capital, and people. It’s occasionally good to remind ourselves that we are all in this together.

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