What Hillary Clinton Gets Wrong About Immigration

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Chaos erupted last weekend at the U.S.-Mexico border as the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency fired tear gas at migrants. At the same time, President Donald Trump’s policy targeting those fleeing poverty and violence in their homelands found some support from his defeated rival: Hillary Clinton. 

Trying to explain the vanquishing of politicians in the “center ground,” the former presidential candidate told the Guardian that Europeans would benefit from building a wall that keeps out undesirables.  

According to Clinton, Brexit was “largely about immigration” and “Europe needs to get a handle on migration because that is what lit the flame.” “Europe,” Clinton said, “has done its part, and must send a very clear message: ‘We are not going to be able to continue to provide refuge and support.’”

As it happens, almost everything Clinton said is wrong. Most of the 65 million displaced people around the world are in poor or middle-income countries such as Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. Pakistan, a country much poorer than the poorest country in Europe, at one point hosted the largest refugee population in the world, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Europe has never done its part, and it has arguably made things worse. The refugee crisis in Europe in 2015, when more than a million people sought asylum, was largely caused by wars in Asia and Africa that Clinton and many centrist politicians backed.

Moreover, in the three years since the crisis, unauthorized migration to Europe has declined by around 90 percent -- the result of Europeans acting as ruthlessly and cynically as Clinton suggests. A morally dubious deal between Turkey and Germany in March 2016 dramatically reduced migration flows overnight. Italy’s center-left government negotiated with nasty Libyan militias to bring down the number of migrants across the Mediterranean.  

Centrist politicians in Britain were no slouches either. The New Labor government, which was in power from 1997 to 2010, repeatedly passed legislation that made life intolerable for asylum-seekers and refugees in Britain. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair openly boasted about being tougher on immigration than the Conservative Party.

Nevertheless, contrary to what Clinton suggests, plagiarizing from the far right’s playbook didn’t work. Turning against the world’s most vulnerable people, the centrists continue to lose supporters.

Chancellor Angela Merkel is commonly supposed, including by Clinton, to have helped the rise of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party by accommodating almost a million refugees in Germany. But, after Merkel fled back to the right on migration, her allied Christian Social Union party dramatically lost more votes in recent local elections to the left-wing Green Party than to the AfD. 

Nor is there any simple relationship between increased immigration and far-right upsurges. In 2015 elections, support for the white nationalist U.K. Independence Party was highest in in parts of the country that hardly have any immigrants. Left-wing parties rule Greece and Spain, two countries that have seen the highest migration flows. 

This is not only because the political and social consequences of migration differ across countries. The success of far-right movements also depends a great deal on whether a favorable environment for them has been created by their centrist rivals for power. 

Many British people may have indeed voted for Brexit out of fear of immigrants and refugees. But it is also true that New Labor’s rhetoric against immigrants and asylum-seekers, embellished by the Conservative party and a xenophobic media, made immigration a toxic political issue in the first place, unmoored from the well-documented reality of its social and economic benefits.

Obsessing about immigration helped preempt analysis of how quickly and deeply societies were growing unequal and unfair. Establishment politicians such as Clinton still go on about keeping foreigners out partly because it helps conceal the devastating failure of their economic policies.

While appeasing the superrich, the British government since 2010 has frozen or reduced welfare payments and housing subsidies for families and disabled people while cutting youth and children’s services. These were “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” policies, as Philip Alston, the UN’s rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said this month; they imposed “great misery” on many in a rich country. In the U.S., the Obama administration, in which Clinton served, bailed out big banks while doing very little to save innumerable Americans from economic insecurity.   

Suffering the great misery inflicted by centrist politicians, many voters were always likely to bring down the whole political system when given the chance. And opportunistic demagogues, for whom igniting fear of foreigners is a time-tested tactic during economic crisis, were lying in wait.

Immigration didn’t light the flame and clamping down on it, Trump-style, won’t douse it. Clinton would do better to analyze how disastrously centrist politicians have responded to growing imbalances of wealth and power. She may then understand, finally, how Trump harvested what centrists like her sowed.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. His books include “Age of Anger: A History of the Present,” “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” and “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond.”

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