The west is being destroyed, not by migrants, but by the fear of migrants. In country after country, the ghosts of the fascists have rematerialized and are sitting in nations around the world.
They have successfully convinced their populations that the greatest threat to their nations isn not government tyranny or inequality or climate change, but immigration. And that, to stop this wave of migrants, everyone’s civil liberties must be curtailed. Surveillance cameras must be installed everywhere. Passports must be produced for the most routine of tasks, like buying a mobile phone.
It is a successful strategy for the fearmongers. Driven by this fear, in country after country voters are electing leaders who are doing incalculable long-term damage. And some liberal politicians blame not the fearmongers or the people who vote for them – but the migrants.
Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe were the harbinger of today’s global migrants; many of today’s covenants that protect refugees came into existence in response to their predicament. So it is particularly painful to hear that the first army in our time to shoot at people crossing the border looking for asylum was the Israeli army. In 2015, Israeli soldiers fired on African migrants crossing the Egyptian border, wounding a number of them. In December 2017, the Knesset passed a law under which the 40,000 asylum seekers in Israel “will have the option to be imprisoned or leave the country.”
It was fear of migrants, principally, that led the British to vote for Brexit. A YouGov poll in the days before Brexit found that 56% of Britons named “immigration and asylum” as the biggest issue facing the country. Tabloids with headlines such as “Migrants Rob Young Britons of Jobs” and “Britain’s 40% Surge in Ethnic Numbers” stoked fear of outsiders, day after day. From 2010 to 2016, the Daily Express ran 179 front-page anti-immigration stories and the Daily Mail 122 similar front-page jeremiads.
In the US, voters motivated by an utterly irrational fear and hatred of immigrants elected in 2016 a leader who might end up being the most destructive in the country’s history. In surveys, Donald Trump’s promise to build a wall between the US and Mexico was the single most important factor cited by former Democrats who voted for Trump, including women. When Congress refused to fund his wall, he shut down the government itself for the longest period the nation had ever known, causing enormous economic and political damage.
For much of the 20th century, America’s greatest threat was from outside: Japan, the Soviet Union. Later it was al-Qaida. Now we realise that the greatest peril comes from within, from the heartland: Queens, New York. Only a year into his presidency, Trump had succeeded in making the country I call home the most polarised I have ever seen it. Democrat versus Republican, Anglo versus Latino, urban versus rural, rich versus poor, men versus women: people are at each other’s throats as never before.
A battle is being fought today in the public squares, at political conventions, on the television, in the opinion pages: a battle of storytelling about migrants. Stories have power, much more power than cold numbers. That’s why Trump won the election; that’s why Orbán, India’s Narendra Modi and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte won power. A populist is, above all, a gifted storyteller, and the recent elections across the world illustrate the power of populism: a false narrative, a horror story about the other, well told.
The fear of migrants is magnified by lies about their numbers; politicians and racists train minds to think of them as a horde. In all the rich countries, people – especially those who are poorly educated or rightwingers – think immigrants are a much bigger share of the population than they really are, and think that they get much more government aid than they really do. A recent study found that Americans, as an overall average, think the foreign-born make up around 37% of the population; in reality, they are only 13.7%. In other words, in the American imagination, we are three times as numerous as we are in reality. The French think that one in three people in their country is Muslim. The actual number is one in 13. British respondents to the poll predicted that 22% of the people will be Muslim by 2020; the actual projection is 6%.
A quarter of the French, one in five Swedes and one in seven Americans think immigrants get twice as much in benefits as the native-born. This is not remotely true in any of these countries. Americans estimate that a quarter of all immigrants are unemployed; in reality, under 5% are.
Every majority is composed of a set of discrete minorities. When you go after Palestinians and Africans in Israel, the Reform Jews are next. When you go after Muslims in India, the Christians are next. When you go after Muslims and Mexicans in America, the Jews and gays are next. The early targets are easy to hit, under the cover of nationalism. But hate, once fed, grows ever more ravenous. It is never satisfied.
We are seeing a new red scare, except this time the enemy isn’t communists; it’s immigrants. The US Immigration Enforcement and Border Patrol raids, grabbing mothers on the streets and hustling them into government vans in front of their screaming daughters, are reminiscent of the Palmer Raids in 1919 and 1920, when hundreds of suspected leftists who were foreign, or looked or sounded foreign, were rounded up and deported.
What are whites so afraid of? In a 2018 column, the paleoconservative commentator Pat Buchanan pointed out the political ramifications of today’s immigration: “In US presidential elections, persons of color whose roots are in Asia, Africa, and Latin America vote 4-1 Democratic, and against the candidates favored by America’s vanishing white majority.” Then he painted a picture of the looming apocalypse: “Mass immigration means an America in 2050 with no core majority, made up of minorities of every race, color, religion and culture on earth, a continent-wide replica of the wonderful diversity we see today in the UN General Assembly.”
Today, these lamentations against migrants are given vent full-throated on Fox News. The Fox anchors claim they are not anti-immigrant; they just want immigrants to come lawfully. The commentator Tomi Lahren often tweets imprecations at immigrants: “We are indeed a nation of immigrants. We are also a nation of laws. Respect our laws and we welcome you. If not, bye.”
The most notorious immigrant hater in the Trump administration is his adviser Stephen Miller, who grew up Jewish in California. Miller’s great-grandparents Wolf and Bessie Glotzer were refugees fleeing the pogroms in Belorussia. They came over in 1903, without hindrance of extreme vetting or even an interview with the American embassy, with $8 in their pockets.
“For Miller to say his family came to America ‘legally’ is simply a ruse,” the Jewish Journal pointed out. “There was no illegal immigration at the turn of the century, because all non-Asian immigration was essentially legal until the 1920s. Then, as now, angry voices fought to keep these immigrants out. They organized the Immigration Restriction League, focused on shutting the ports to swarthy Italians and Jews. “The floodgates are open,” wrote one anti-immigrant newspaper editor as the eastern European Jews docked in New York. ‘The horde of $9.60 steerage slime is being siphoned upon us from Continental mud tanks.’ Such sentiments led to the Immigration Quota Act of 1924 – which effectively shut the door to Jewish immigration on the eve of the Holocaust.”
As the article notes: “When an American Jew turns on immigrants, there is a whiff of head-scratching hypocrisy, if not something more clinical. It is taking the side of people who, in a historical blink of the eye, would have met your own great-grandparents at the docks with stones and spitballs.”
Miller’s own uncle, David Glosser, posted a Facebook note: “My nephew and I must both reflect long and hard on one awful truth. If in the early 20th century the USA had built a wall against poor desperate ignorant immigrants of a different religion, like the Glossers, all of us would have gone up the crematoria chimneys with the other 6 million kinsmen whom we can never know.’
Fear of migrants earns politicians votes. Fear of migrants sells. Fox ratings have never been higher, feeding their readers a daily diet of xenophobia. But the greatest facilitator of race-hatred against refugees isn’t a tabloid; it’s Facebook. The social network aids the dissemination of rumors, such as that all refugees are welfare cheats or rapists; and, unmediated by gatekeepers or editors, the rumors spread, and ordinary people are roused to violence. Wherever Facebook usage rose to one standard deviation above normal, the researchers found, attacks on refugees increased by 50%. When there were internet outages in areas with high Facebook usage, the attacks dropped significantly.
This is an edited extract from This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto by Suketu Mehta
Originally published on The Guardian as Immigration panic: how the west fell for manufactured rage