Racism, immigration and border controls
Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott promote the myth that we must ‘secure our borders’ against refugees. James Supple makes the case for open borders—for everyone
Behind the Gillard government’s slide into ever harder policies towards refugees is their agreement with the Liberals that there must be a “deterrent” against arriving by boat.
It’s clear that even incredibly draconian policies do not stop refugees who are fleeing persecution. Mandatory indefinite detention was introduced under Labor in 1992, yet another wave of refugees started to come in 1999.
Boats are still arriving even after the Gillard government announced the “Malaysia solution”—which means asylum seekers face being forced back to unliveable conditions.
Refugee boats have only ever come in a trickle—even last year’s record number was just 3 per cent of our overall immigration intake. In reality there is no refugee “problem”.
Yet last year the government spent $2 billion on detaining refugees, plus millions more on other “border security” measures, like new Customs patrol boats costing $350 million.
The Howard government went to great lengths to stir up hostility to refugees—from the manufactured crisis over the Tampa in 2001 to its lies about children thrown overboard. The media has played along.
The myth that asylum seekers arriving by boat are “jumping the queue” has been relentlessly reinforced by the Liberals as well as the Labor government.
This serves to spread the myth that we need to force refugees to come “the right way”.
This enormous political campaign has never been motivated primarily by government concerns about the number of boat people coming here. It is theatre designed for a domestic political audience, designed to spread the idea of a threat to “our borders”.
Part of the way politicians and the media have tried to bolster this threat is to blur the distinction between refugees and migrants more broadly.
For instance’s John Howard’s famous line that “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come” asserted a general determination to “defend our borders” against any supposed threat, whether from refugees, migrants or terrorists.
There are deeply ingrained fears about immigration among the Australian population. This is a product of Australia’s history as a white colonial outpost, whose rulers had a paranoid fear about invasion from the north.
This produced the White Australia Policy, an immigration policy based on the exclusion of non-Europeans, which helped entrench racist attitudes in the Australian working class.
Immigration levels have long been a touchstone issue for the hardline racists. Pauline Hanson declared in her maiden speech to parliament, “Immigration must be halted in the short-term so that our dole queues are not added to by, in many cases, unskilled migrants not fluent in the English language.” If not, she declared, “we are in danger of being swamped by Asians”.
Howard’s campaign against refugees came in the context of the strong showing of Hanson’s One Nation Party at the previous election, and was designed to win over her voters to the Liberals.
In the lead up to last year’s federal election the Liberals were even more explicit. They campaigned not just on the need to “stop the boats”, but sought to link this to wider “population pressures”.
Abbott promised to cut the immigration intake by 100,000 a year, saying, “A fair dinkum debate about population can’t avoid immigration…” Labor sought to pander to the same fears by agreeing there was a need for a debate about population levels.
Julia Gillard made it obvious that this was targeted at working class electorates by saying, “If you spoke to the people of Western Sydney, for example about a ‘big Australia’ they would laugh at you and [say]… where will these 40 million people go?”
This blurring means that anyone who is pro-refugee can be accused of wanting “open borders”. This is often used as a way to discredit refugee supporters, with the assumption being that without any border controls, Australia would be “swamped”, as there are millions of potential immigrants just waiting to come here.
Even many people who see through the lies about refugees accept this. But it is an unjustified concession to racism. Socialists support open borders and oppose all immigration controls.
Opening the borders would see an increase in immigration—but the numbers that would come are massively overstated.
It’s true there are many people in the world that have worse standards of living than those in Australia.
But part of their tragedy is that they simply can’t afford to immigrate. “Most people cannot afford the fares, the loss of incomes when moving, and the expense of settling in a new country,” Teresa Hayter, author of the book Open Borders, has pointed out.
In addition, most people do not want to abandon the country they live in, along with all their family and friends, to move to a strange and different place. Moving to a different country with a strange culture, and often a different language, is not an easy thing.
Nor is there any guarantee for immigrants that they will succeed in finding work and a better life. The newest immigrants generally get the worst jobs on offer, and studies show they are the first to be sacked when recession hits. Frequently they are the victims of racism in their new countries.
An indication of what would happen without border controls comes from recent history.
Until the end of the 19th century immigration controls did not exist. The spread of railways and steamships in the second half of the 1800s made large scale movements of people much easier. For instance around 70,000 people a year migrated from Britain to its colonies such as Australia during the 1840s.
Yet the first effort to restrict immigration into Britain, then the world’s leading power, did not come until the Aliens Act of 1905.
Immigration from within the British Commonwealth, the remains of the British empire, was unrestricted until 1962. This allowed migrants from areas like the Caribbean and India to enter at will.
Despite the period of economic boom following WWII, only 0.6 per cent of the population of the Caribbean countries migrated each year, despite their complete freedom to do so.
The situation was similar in most other developed countries. France had an open border policy for residents of French overseas departments in its empire like that of Britain.
The US did not even begin recording immigration across its Mexican border until 1908, allowing employers to recruit labourers from over the border. Apart from legislation restricting Chinese migrants, there were no immigration controls until WWI.
More recently, the European Union has adopted open borders among member states. But even in the face of mass unemployment in countries like Spain, there has been no surge of immigration into the stronger EU economies like Germany.
As the Wall Street Journal has noted, “as far as we can tell…Spanish citizens are staying put… Europeans tend not to work outside their ‘home’ countries. In 2010, only 3.2 per cent of those working in the 17 members of the euro zone were citizens of another EU member nation. In 2007, the year before the financial crisis really took hold, that proportion was 2.9 per cent.”
Britain also opened its borders to immigrants from depressed Eastern European countries like Poland in 2004. Immigration increased to an overall net level of about 200,000 from 50,000 in 1997. These numbers are small—less than the level of immigration here, into a much larger economy.
Immigration and jobs
Many people also believe that an “open borders” policy would be impractical, because it would cause chaos through increasing unemployment, overburdening government services or wrecking our environment.
The idea the immigration causes unemployment, or lowers wages, is a myth. This is the conclusion of numerous official studies.
A 2003 report by neo-liberal economist Ross Garnaut actually found that, “contemporary immigration raises the average income of Australians”.
There are a number of reasons for this. It is widely established that increased immigration leads to higher economic growth.
For this reason, some right-wing economists advocate open borders, as well as the Wall Street Journal, whose board member Jason Riley authored a book titled Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders.
Every new immigrant must have housing, food and clothing, and all this generates demand in the economy, creating jobs.
Most immigrants do not arrive penniless, bringing money with them to help pay for all of this.
A higher population also reduces the cost of many government and commercial services like interstate transport and communications, which need to be provided whatever the population, raising the general standard of living.
Unemployment is caused by recession and capitalist crisis, not immigration. The times of lowest unemployment in Australian history have been periods of high immigration.
After WWII, the Australian government set a target of increasing the population by 1 per cent a year through immigration.
It even set up an assisted passage scheme to pay for the travel costs of many of them, so desperate was it to encourage new migrants. This was during the period of the great post-war economic boom.
Similarly periods of high unemployment, like the 1930s, saw migrants stay away—in fact from 1930-1934 net migration was negative, as more people left the country than arrived.
When the economy is booming, employers need extra labour and so suck in workers from all over the world through high immigration levels.
This explains why Australian governments have run high immigration policies in recent years, at 215,600 net migration in 2009-10, down from 315,700 in the year ending December 2008. Business wants high immigration to prevent labour shortages and ensure the economy continues to grow.
They aim to pick and choose which migrants to accept, favouring educated and skilled workers needed in industries like mining. This means that Australian capitalism gets the advantage of using their labour without having to pay for its reproduction, education and training.
Greens leader Bob Brown, who wants to see immigration reduced, has used this to call for cuts to business migration, claiming “you can buy your way into this country if you’re rich or you’re highly skilled”.
Despite his efforts to dress this up as a humanitarian approach, by saying we should cut back on
immigration but accept more refugees, he has sounded disturbingly similar to the racists, accusing skilled migrants of being the real “queue jumpers”.
And his rhetoric reinforces racist myths like the idea immigrants steal jobs.
There is nothing humanitarian about calling for cuts to immigration. Migrants come here not only to improve their own lives, but often to find work in order to send money home, sometimes supporting whole families.
But despite their need for labour, big business does not oppose government efforts to keep out refugees. For instance, the Business Council of Australia was vocal in its opposition to the Liberals’ proposal last year to cut the immigration intake, but has had comparatively little to say about the exclusion of refugees.
In times of recession, business and governments sometimes favour a reduction in immigration levels. For the reasons discussed above, this actually hurts the economy.
But it is useful for them in fostering division amongst workers and blaming scapegoats for rises in unemployment. The purpose of immigration controls, then, is primarily ideological—to encourage workers to fear immigration as some kind of threat, and to promote racism.
These ideas are a very powerful way of turning working class people against migrants and refugees, and letting the real source of the problems in society—like government cutbacks to services and job cuts by business in the name of boosting profits—off the hook.
The idea that “our” borders must be maintained is also vital to fostering nationalism. It sets up a division between Australian workers and those outside “the nation”. We are encouraged to believe that “our” way of life is privileged and superior to that elsewhere.
This encourages working class people in Australia to believe they have common interests with the corporate executives, shareholders and politicians who make up the ruling class.
So why do workers accept racist ideas?
Some have argued that white workers benefit from racism, but in fact the opposite is true. The idea that migrant workers, who are often willing to accept lower wages than local workers, drive down wages and take jobs appeals to people as common sense.
“Economic competition” between European workers and Chinese migrants has been claimed as a motive behind working class support for the White Australia Policy, for instance.
But detailed studies in the US, such as that by Marxist sociologist Al Szymanski, have shown that stronger racism amongst white workers actually forced down their own wages. In states where African American, Hispanic and migrant workers suffered the worst wages, white workers also had lower wages than elsewhere.
This was particularly strong in the southern states, where there remains vicious racism against African Americans as a legacy of segregation.
This is because divisions among different nationalities, or between local and migrant workers, weakens effective union organisation and industrial action, which relies on unity across the workforce.
Within a workplace, when a decision to go on strike is made, it will not be effective if sections of the workforce refuse to strike, and allow the bosses to continue to run the business and generate profit.
Some employers have even consciously set out to play off workers of different nationalities in order to weaken unionism.
In 1952 the Immigration Department defended the immigration of southern European workers on the basis that, “migrants will almost certainly be more docile in accepting [management-imposed] changes of [work] practice”.
In Kalgoorlie and Broken Hill in the 1930s, mining companies donated money to the Returned Soldiers’ and Sailor’s League which led a campaign against Italian and Yugolav migrants that led to riots.
Employers can also use the fear of economic competition from migrant workers to convince other workers to accept lower wages.
The solution to this is to organise workers across racial and ethnic divides in a united fight for better wages and conditions.
Despite the strength of racism, there is also a strong history of this amongst Australian workers—and often new migrant workers have been among the most militant is fighting alongside their fellow workers for better wages.
Socialists from Karl Marx onwards have stood for working class internationalism across all countries. As part of this we oppose all immigration controls, and support the free movement of people everywhere.
Not only is this the only truly humanitarian stance, especially in a rich developed country like Australia. It is also necessary to an uncompromising fight against the racism used to divide workers everywhere in the interests of our rulers.