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Economic Malaise Makes Immigrants a Target for Restrictive Legislation, Public Backlash

Economic Malaise Makes Immigrants a Target for Restrictive Legislation, Public Backlash

With unemployment rates remaining persistently high in the wake of the global economic crisis, ongoing turbulence in financial markets, and new austerity in public spending, anxious publics and governments trained their attention on immigration and immigrants during 2011.

Among the results: more restrictionist immigration policies, a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment, and the increasing popularity of radical-right parties. The latter have capitalized on fears of diluted cultural identity and the perceived failures of multiculturalism for short-term political gains.

Immigration Crackdown

Issue No. 2 of Top Ten of 2011

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Over the past year, several countries in the European Union have tried to reduce immigration or signaled their intent to do so, despite already decreasing levels of inflows in many places.

The Netherlands recently announced tougher rules for asylum seekers who want to gain Dutch nationality, and now requires immigrants seeking residence permits to pass civic and language tests to prove their commitment to integration. The Czech Republic — for which immigration has typically been a nonissue — is in the process of toughening its policies toward non-EU nationals as well as national minorities such as Roma.

In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron is leading the charge on stricter policies for prospective non-EU immigrants amid public concern over the growing foreign-born population. What's more, the UK Migration Advisory Committee recently proposed cuts to the shortage occupation list that would prohibit migrants in certain occupations from earning extra points toward visa acquisition.

At the supranational level, increased pressure was placed this year on the Schengen system of borderless movement between the 25 participating European countries, as some states pressed for the right to reinstate internal border controls in "extreme" circumstances and Southeastern Mediterranean Member States argued for increased support in policing borders and dealing with unauthorized immigrants. (See Issue #1: Arab Spring and Fear of Migrant Surge Expose Rift in EU Immigration Policy Circles).

Meanwhile, Finland and the Netherlands dashed the entry of Bulgaria and Romania into the Schengen zone until at least early 2012 due to concerns over corruption and inadequate border security at the countries' external borders.

There was also an overall tightening of the European Union's external borders in 2011. The European Parliament approved a 25 million euro budget increase for Frontex, the EU border management agency, despite reduced illegal inflows at most border crossings. (See Issue #3: Immigration in United States and Parts of Europe Gives Way to Increased Emigration). The European Union also moved forward this year with plans to design a Smart Borders strategy that would record entry and exit data to monitor authorized stays while simplifying border checks for certain travelers.

Outside Europe, similar cases of border tightening and increasingly restrictive policies also occurred. Australia, weary of the arrival of "boat people," made headlines when it attempted to send 800 refugees to Malaysia in an offshore processing deal that was eventually abandoned by the Australian government amid significant controversy. (See Issue #7: Immigrant Detention under Scrutiny in Australia, United Kingdom, and United States). And Russia passed a new law in October making it more difficult for immigrants to obtain Russian citizenship.

In the United States, enforcement remained the main focus of immigration policy in 2011, with deportations reaching an all-time high and the number of detentions nearly 53 percent higher in 2010 than in 2005. (See Issue #9: A Decade after 9/11, Enforcement Focus Prevails in the United States; Broader Immigration Reforms Remain Stalled).

There was also an increase in the intensity of state-level immigration enforcement action, with a number of states modeling legislation on Arizona's controversial SB 1070, which grants broad authority to state and local law enforcement agents to target people believed to be in the country illegally. Alabama emulated Arizona and went a step further by ordering public schools to obtain information on students' legal status, though the U.S. Supreme Court in Plyler v. Doe (1982) affirmed the right of every child, regardless of legal status, to obtain a public education.

States that have seen large increases in their foreign-born populations in recent years have been quickest to enact state legislation designed to target unauthorized immigrants. In addition to Alabama, which experienced a 67 percent growth in its immigrant population since 2000, South Carolina (77 percent growth), Georgia (59 percent growth), and Indiana (51 percent growth) have all passed immigration enforcement laws modeled after SB1070.

Anti-Immigrant Sentiment

There was also evidence of increased anti-immigrant sentiment in parts of Europe, most notably in the continued forcible evictions and violence against Roma in France, Italy, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic.

Bans against the wearing of Muslim face veils or burqas took effect in both France and Belgium in 2011, though the ban in Belgium is currently under adjudication. In August, an Italian parliamentary committee approved a draft law banning Muslim women from wearing face veils in public, and in September, the Swiss Parliament also voted to ban burqas. The government of the Netherlands has since indicated that it intends to do the same.

Workplace and hiring discrimination against Turkish immigrants and their descendants in Germany have reportedly driven away some highly educated and highly skilled Turkish residents. Similar discriminatory practices have been noted elsewhere with respect to the selection of candidates based on foreign-seeming names or credentials.

The July rampage by right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik in Norway, during which he killed 77 people, was fueled in part by his hatred of Islam and fierce opposition to multiculturalism. His belief that the government was not doing enough to prevent society from losing its cultural homogeneity is a sentiment reiterated in anti-immigrant rhetoric throughout northern Europe.

Radical-Right Parties

There was a perceptible rise in 2011 in the popularity of radical-right political parties with an anti-immigration agenda, particularly in Western Europe, though not in every country and not to the same extent for every party.

Radical-right parties have been rather successful at winning votes in Austria, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, and have had moderate success in elections in Belgium, Denmark, France, and Italy. Spain has had some right-wing activity at the regional level, but there is no national radical-right political party.

Most of these parties have never formed a large part of government, and thus have had limited direct impact on immigration policy. However, in places where they have been represented in governing coalitions — most notably Italy, Austria, and Switzerland — these parties have been instrumental in introducing more restrictive immigration policies. And Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands, though not formally a part of government, plays a marginal but critical role as a member of an informal coalition. When it comes to many key decisions, the necessary support of the Freedom Party is contingent upon the government adopting the party's position on immigration and other matters.

Radical-right groups do not always organize themselves around an anti-immigrant agenda, but instead take up a number of policy issues — like economics or security — using immigration when it is politically expedient.

There is evidence that the popularity of radical-right parties is not without limit. Swiss voters, for example, backed moderate forces and reduced their support of the far-right Swiss People's Party — previously one of Europe's most popular nationalist parties — in recent general elections. Support for the Norwegian Progress Party, to which Breivik claims membership, reduced by half after the massacre. And the anti-Islam Danish People's Party, with its support of restrictionist immigration policies, was dealt a blow this fall when Danish voters elected a center-left coalition government.

It may be shortsighted to attribute 2011's increased restrictions on immigration, rise in anti-immigrant sentiment, and support for right-wing nationalist parties solely to the struggling economy or even directly to immigration flows. In many instances, high rates of immigration have not led to increased nativism (as in Spain), and oftentimes it is the second generation — those that are native born with immigrant parents — that is feeling the brunt of anti-immigrant sentiment.

Rather, there is likely a host of underlying causes and drivers for mounting anxiety over immigration and immigrants, including increasingly visible and rapid demographic changes, growing culture heterogeneity in formerly homogenous areas, economics, security, presumed illegality related to immigrants, and low confidence in governments to improve the distribution of resources.