The Golden Door (Nuovomondo) is a beautiful film. It’s touching, but never sentimental. It is hard, but never gritty. It is the story of Sicilian migrants to the US at the turn of the 20th century. Back then, the US were in the thrall of the second industrial revolution. They raced ahead of everybody. They began a ‘new world’ (nuovo mondo). These poor Sicilian shepherds, who don’t speak Italian, but only Sicilian, and have grown up in the mountains with sheep, make the trip to the US. They were told wondrous tales of giant vegetables, coins falling from the sky, and people swimming in milk. Lucy (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is a British woman on board of the same ship. She is middle class and travelling alone. At arrival, people are inspected as if they were animals and some rejected for not being disabled or of insufficient intelligence.
At that time, the US had migrant quotas according to ethnicity and race (for those who like quotas!). Sociologist Stephen Klineberg (Rice University) explaining the law at that time:
“It declared that Northern Europeans are a superior subspecies of the white race. The Nordics were superior to the Alpines, who in turn were superior to the Mediterraneans, and all of them were superior to the Jews and the Asians. …
By the 1960s, Greeks, Poles, Portuguese and Italians were complaining that immigration quotas discriminated against them in favor of Western Europeans. The Democratic Party took up their cause, led by President John F. Kennedy. In a June 1963 speech to the American Committee on Italian Migration, Kennedy called the system of quotas in place back then ” nearly intolerable.”
I have heard anti-migrant rhetoric ever since I came to the UK in 1997. In the past six years or so I have been complaining about the tones used by politicians of main parties. I later began to collect academic research on migration. The media profited out of the fear and hatred of foreigners, while the political class has legitimised the xenophobia and scapegoating of migrants coming from the press. No main party has ever put forward a positive case for migration, only some individual MPs. People have been duped by the media and politicians have pandered to xenophobia to court the public’s favour. Xenophobia has been legitimised and is driving this misguided EU referendum.
The truth is that Mmigration has been exceptionally good for Britain. According to research, it has meant higher growth, more jobs, higher wages. The negative effect on low-skilled labour has also been small. Migration (be it internal or external) puts pressure on public services and infrastructure. The UK government has cut back on public services and infrastructure instead of investing. There are issues that are never discussed in the media:
- Matching skills and places: migrants differ in terms of culture, their economic background, educational attainment, skills etc. That is why a Europe-wide approach alerting migrants of which skills are needed where would benefit the host society as much as migrants. Why can’t there be government websites informing on regional work opportunities? For instance, agencies recruit nurses from India for the UK and Italian government, why can’t shortage of other skills be advertised?
- Entrepreneurs: migrants are not just employees, so wanting to accept migrants into the country who only have a job offer would stop entrepreneurial migrants, those who start businesses. Funding and advice for start-ups should be advertised widely across the EU (and further afield).
- Depopulation: there are areas of depopulation in the UK (and other parts of Europe). Migrants and refugees would be a great resource to revive these regions. It would only take a little investment with a guarantee high return.
- Culture: migrants contribute to our culture and lifestyle. Let’s try to go beyond the food and the clothing. Migrants bring different sensitivities, customs, ways of thinking. The great aspect of European culture has been its cultural curiosity. Marco Polo travelled to China and was a keen observer of its civilisation, which he related to the European public. Europeans have been open to learn from others. Being often more powerful than others, difference was perhaps less threatening; yet we have also reflected on the value of diversity, on our flawed colonial viewpoint, and have adapted.
The world has changed dramatically in a relative short time. From the 1960s onward, a new society has emerged. This gap between generations is evident in the voting intentions in this referendum. Today, we have a better society: respectful of diversity, more considerate of our effect on the planet, and more socially liberal. We have a far worse economy. Our jobs are insecure and badly paid, while the super-rich keep on getting richer. We are fed the luxury of celebrities and the easy money of dot-com kids as a model, rather than conscientious work and care for our neighbours.
We are faced with an ugly and tough economic system and misguided government policies across Europe. Closing borders does not stop migration, it only makes it illegal. The only thing that reduces migration is a recession. Do you fear others so much that you are prepared to lose your job? I believe the UK and Europe are at their best when they are not afraid of change and of others. Retreating into an imaginary past will not make us stronger, but weaker, isolated, and fearful. If Europe is to honour its tradition of cultural and technological innovation, scientific discovery, philosophical thinking, political development, and economic success, it needs to come together to build a better tomorrow and welcome others, who see in Europe what we have forgotten.
P.S. This post was written before Jo Cox MP died after being shot by someone who, as reported in the news, shouted ‘Britain First’. He probably targeted her for her positive stance of migration. She should be remembered for standing for diversity and hospitality at a time when people have taken refuge in hatred. In her maiden speech in the House of Commons last year, she said:
“Our communities have been deeply enhanced by immigration, be it of Irish Catholics across the constituency or of Muslims from Gujarat in India or from Pakistan, principally from Kashmir.
“While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.“