nativism: a global problem


I posted last week about an Italian man who was locked up by Customs and Border Patrol for 10 days without cause and then sent back to Italy. (We had one commenter with what appeared to be inside knowledge of CBP procedures come to defend CBP's actions and cast aspersions on the NY Times reporter who broke the story, the detained man, and his girlfriend's father.)  This story was just one more bit of evidence of our deeply warped immigration policy.  The problematic Postville raid and the disclosure of scores of deaths in immigration detention over the past few years are two more.

But for anyone who thought that nativism and government overreach were strictly American phenomena, the last week has shown otherwise. 

First, ironically, in Italy:

Underscoring the new Italian government's determination to crack down on illegal immigration and what the government contends is associated crime, Italy's police arrested hundreds of people this week in a sweep of migrant shantytowns in major urban areas across the country, the police announced Thursday.

Nearly 400 people were arrested, including more than 100 who were immediately expelled. The police said more than 100 of those arrested were suspected of violating immigration laws, 180 of theft or prostitution, and 92 of drug dealing. Those arrested included 50 Moroccans and 32 Romanians.

Note the similarities to recent U.S. raids--mass sweeps, quick expulsions with minimal legal process, and widely trumpeted criminal charges of dubious integrity.  One obvious question is, how can guilt or innocence in any criminal proceeding be determined when the alleged perpetrator has already been deported?

The widely publicized raids were a strong signal from Italy's new right-wing government, which is led by Silvio Berlusconi and includes the anti-immigrant Northern League Party, that it will keep its promises to pursue tougher policies toward immigrants.

Berlusconi knows his base, and they hate them some foreigners. 

"The anti-immigrant sweep was a positive thing because that's what people want," said Umberto Bossi, the minister of institutional reforms and federalism. "People ask us for safety, and we must give it to them."

Mr. Berlusconi's coalition, the People of Freedom party, ran on a platform that declared that it would "empty illegal camps, and get rid of nomads who have no residence and no means of subsistence."

Berlusconi wants criticism for these tactics, he wants to be known as the man with the firm hand who took on the Roma.  Similarly, ICE in the U.S. wants all the attention it can get for the recent Postville raid--not only does this divert attention from the deaths in detention scandal or other scandals, it lets the political supporters of the Bush administration know that Bush is "doing something about the border," that he is defending America against dangerous Guatemalan laborers who were this close to getting away with their scheme to supply the Kosher community with tasty, low-cost meat products. 

On Saturday, several hundred Italians attacked a camp of Roma, or Gypsies, on the eastern outskirts of Naples brandishing sticks and throwing homemade incendiary devices, after a 16-year-old Roma girl was accused of trying to steal a baby. The police were called to restore order and no one was injured, but the episode led national news programs.

Note how the whole operation is hung on a tenuous, sensational charge, just as the Postville raids were justified in part by supposed involvement of migrants in a shadowy meth conspiracy.  Allegations like these don't need to be proven, they just serve to get the lynch mob rolling. 

A second sad case study of intolerance comes from South Africa.

This nation is undergoing a spasm of xenophobia, with poor South Africans taking out their rage on the poor foreigners living in their midst. At least 22 people had been killed by Monday in the unrelenting mayhem, the police said.

But the death toll only hints at the consequences. Thousands of immigrants have been scattered from their tumbledown homes. They now crowd the police stations and community centers of Johannesburg, some with the few possessions they could carry before mobs ransacked their hovels, most with nothing but the clothes they wore as they escaped.

"They came at night, trying to kill us, with people pointing out, 'this one is a foreigner and this one is not,' " said Charles Mannyike, 28, an immigrant from Mozambique. "It was a very cruel and ugly hatred."

Xenophobic violence, once an occasional malady around Johannesburg, is now a contagion, skipping from one area to another. The city has no shortage of neighborhoods where the poor cobble together shacks from corrugated metal and wood planks.

Here at the Ramaphosa Settlement Camp, the squatter's colony southeast of the city, six immigrants have been killed in the past two days -- or perhaps seven if the man found in the dust Monday morning does not survive.

"We want all these foreigners to go back to their own lands," said Thapelo Mgoqi, who considers himself a leader in Ramaphosa. "We waited for our government to do something about these people. But they did nothing and so now we are doing it ourselves, and we will not be stopped."

These are the same nativist sentiments expressed throughout the world, and have an eerie resonance with restrictionist claims here in the U.S.  The assertion that "the government wouldn't act, so we will" serves a double function: it attempts to justify otherwise illegal acts of theft, assault, or murder and it puts pressure on the government to penalize migrant communities to "protect them" from the angry mobs in waiting. 

As Roberto Lovato pointed out, the situation in South Africa presents a potential vision of our future in the U.S. should current trends go unchecked. 

But, among people here, a familiar litany of complaints against foreigners is passionately, if not always rationally, argued: They commit crimes. They undercut wages. They hold jobs that others deserve.

George Booysen said that as a born-again Christian he did not believe in killing. Still, something had to be done about these unwanted immigrants.

They are bad people, he said: "A South African may take your cellphone, but he won't kill you. A foreigner will take your phone and kill you."

This attribution of bad faith and irrational motives to the foreigner, the outsider, the stranger, is a seemingly universal human trait.  Refugees from Zimbabwe don't want to kill South Africans--they just want to not starve under the South African-supported thuggish Mugabe regime.  It is a familiar story. 

I wonder, is there any form of restrictionist solidarity?  Do the Minutemen of Arizona support the angry mobs in Italy, the xenophobic rioters in South Africa?  Is there an international nativist movement to restore sovereign dignity to our recently forged, imagined national communities?  Perhaps not.  So it is up to migrant advocates to reach out to each other across national boundaries to find solutions to the global problems of nativism and fear of outsiders.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by David Bennion published on May 21, 2008 7:57 AM.

Protesting the Postville Raids: Pro-Migrant Sanctuarysphere was the previous entry in this blog.

Clarifying the Postville Raid is the next entry in this blog.

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