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(HOST) Once again, immigration policies here and abroad are being sharply debated. Commentator Olin Robison reflects on the issues involved.

(ROBISON) The colorful late Tip O’Neill, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, famously said that “…all politics is local.”

He was right, of course. It is safe to assume that he meant domestic politics. He was, after all, a major figure in the Congress during a time when another adage was that “…politics stop at the water’s edge,” which meant that Americans are united on foreign policy, or at least don’t argue publicly about it.

We all know that politics no longer stops at the water’s edge, but it may nonetheless be true that all politics, both domestic and international, in the end is local.

First, a bit of recent history: During the Cold War one of the cardinal principles that separated us from them, the good guys from the bad guys, was that the United States and the other major democracies stood for the free movement of goods, capital, information and people across international boundaries. The Soviets did not. Their people were not free to go. Nor were any of the peoples under the extended umbrella of the Soviet empire.

Everything has now changed. Well, almost everything.

Immigration issues, or the movement of people across international borders, is now one of the most vexing of issues worldwide. It is a set of issues that are both domestic and international. And, of course, it is even more complex and difficult here in the United States because of 9/11 and the perceived homeland security needs.

Other major democracies all face major immigration issues, with those in Europe and Japan being the most acute. The United States has been, from the beginning, an immigrant nation. Japan, Germany and France, on the other hand, have not. And yet their economic need for immigration makes these issues loom large. These countries have, for some time, been facing seriously declining birthrates with the result that there is great economic pressure to bring in outsiders who are willing to do the work.

European birthrates are low. North African birthrates are high. Europe remains nominally Christian. North Africa’s is overwhelmingly Muslim. Spain sees itself being flooded with Moroccans, France with Algerians, Italy with Tunisians and Germany with Turks. In each of these countries, economic needs collide with cultural apprehensions. In Japan, the potential labor force comes largely from South Korea – a country with which, to put it kindly, Japan has a complicated and troubled history.

And so it is easy to speculate what it is in each of these countries that keeps politicians awake at night. Ours is a complex time. It wasn’t all that long ago – namely before World War I – that most people could go anywhere they wanted and could afford. The United States moved to a passport system only in 1915.

My personal sense is that Americans generally have great ambivalence about immigration. An odd alliance keeps it relatively open. Oddly, many on the far left and numerous right-wing business people come together in support of more open immigration policies: the left on ideological grounds; the right because it is a source of cheap labor.

So, once again, we have, here and elsewhere, an international issue driven by domestic politics. It is all local after all.

This is Olin Robison.

Olin Robison is president of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria.

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