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     Volume 7 Issue 18 | May 3, 2008 |

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Food for Thought

Political Games versus Ground Realities

(Part I)

Farah Ghuznavi

Amidst increasingly draconian rules and regulations being updated on what seems to be on an almost daily basis! - thousands upon thousands of illegal immigrants continue to carry out their responsibilities in homes, offices and institutions all over the developed world. Many of them are engaged in cleaning, maintenance and service jobs, working in construction sites, takeaway restaurants and farms; and most fill jobs that are considered to be too menial or hazardous to be undertaken by local residents, whether in the US, Europe, the Gulf countries or Asian tiger economies.

In the UK, it has been estimated that deporting such migrants would create acute shortages of cleaners, care workers and hotel/services staff. And yet, despite the fact that many of these illegal immigrants are providing an essential service to the communities in which they currently live, they remain the targets of suspicion and discrimination from many local residents.

Their irregular status makes them vulnerable to exploitation by employers, who can afford to threaten or cheat them out of their rightful earnings. According to the General Secretary of one of the leading British trade unions, “Workers worried about their immigration status are among the most exploited in our workplaces. Global criminal operations extort their money, while in the workplace unscrupulous employers can intimidate them without fear of reproach.”

The current trend for populist politicians to whip up anti-immigration sentiment and xenophobia has meant that migrants have also become targets of violence from hostile elements among the local population. The incidence of racist attacks recorded by police in England and Wales jumped by 12% to exceed a total of 59,000 in 2006. Even sharper rises have been recorded in certain parts of the country. Despite these ugly consequences, such political manoeuvrings are often accompanied by robust propaganda that stereotypes foreign workers as welfare-cheats or hardened criminals. Not surprisingly, this has led in many quarters for demands to just “throw them out” or “send them back where they came from”.

Such simplistic demands - quite apart from violating norms of civilised behaviour - signally fail to take into account the fact that many western economies suffer from severe labour shortages, and could not do without the efforts of this external workforce. In Britain, for example, the most recent Home Office estimates suggest that there could be anything from 310,000 to 570,000 unauthorised migrants in the country. According to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), a UK-based think-tank, most of these workers are engaged in “jobs that could be characterised as dirty, difficult and dangerous”. Given the numbers involved, the IPPR concludes that deporting hundreds of thousands of “irregular migrants” is “simply not feasible” (UK Independent).

As Nick Pearce, the director of the IPPR puts it, while proper border controls and managed legal migration are definitely desirable, immigrants also need to be given a chance to do things by the book “There are thousands of people in Britain who work day in, day out, in often atrocious conditions for pitiful pay. They would love to pay taxes, earn the minimum wage and travel in and out of the country legally.”

Since the economies of cities like London, Paris and other capitals remain particularly dependent on such workers, it is difficult to see how the economies concerned would survive the deportation or expulsion of these migrants. Currently, foreign workers are employed to do 90% of low-paid jobs in London, and account for nearly one-third of the capital's workforce, in what is the fastest-growing region of the country. In the case of Britain, the IPPR report states that, “It is inconceivable that these people will all be deported, even in the wildest fantasies of the anti-immigration right. The Immigration Service has more than enough on its hands policing our borders and removing newly arrived failed asylum-seekers. To go round the country finding, detaining and then deporting up to half a million people who don't have regular status simply will not happen” (UK Independent).

According to the IPPR, the best option might be to provide illegal immigrants in Britain with a promise that they will not be deported, i.e. an amnesty. Such a measure would mean an additional 1 billion pounds per year being raised in taxes, which would provide an enormous boost to the public coffers, especially in comparison to the potential 4.7 billion pounds that would be the estimated cost of deporting illegal immigrants! This means that the net gain of legalising these workers' status would be nearly 6 billion pounds a not inconsiderable sum…

The solution being proposed by the think-tank may be considered by many to be too radical, but there are examples to indicate that such a measure could work. In the past, both the US, and closer to home in Spain, such amnesties have provided a means of regularising the status of workers already in the country. Interestingly enough, while legal migrants comprise 8.7% of the British population, they contribute the proportionately greater amount of 10.2% of all taxes. And while it would be political suicide to highlight this, if the 25,715 people who claimed asylum last year were allowed to work, they would generate an estimated 123 million pounds for the Exchequer (UK Independent).

Although the fear of immigrants appears to be increasingly widespread across the countries of the developed world, there are some variations in the ways in which governments are attempting to come to terms with the challenges that they face. In America, the issue of migration across the US-Mexican border has resulted in a complete polarisation of public opinion. The same is true of politicians, with the Republican Party being split between anti-immigration hardliners who support militarization of the border and a denial of all public services to immigrants, and the more pragmatic big business interests, who see such workers as an essential source of cheap labour.

The end result is a situation where the House has passed its bill proposing mass deportation, but the Senate has been taking a more moderate line. Meanwhile, half a million people marched in Los Angeles in 2006 opposing a law that planned to redefine 12 million undocumented immigrants as felons and to build a wall halfway along the 2,000 mile Mexican border hardly realistic options!

As in the UK, the best available economic data suggests that immigrants both legal and illegal are net contributors to the national economy, the social security fund and the treasury. But such realities have done little to dispel the surge in hostility towards outsiders since 11th September 2001; that situation has been further worsened by the assertions of some elected officials and right-wing commentators who like to argue that illegal immigration is responsible for spiralling crime rates and possible terrorist infiltration.

(to be continued…)

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