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“Give me your tired, your poor…”

Professor Jurg Siegenthaler. American University

From the outcome of the September 24 votes on immigrants and asylum seekers, we know that most Swiss voters favor a toughening of rules.

In the United States, illegal immigration arouses equally strong passions. But based on the little we know, immigration is a good thing. Perhaps the benefits need to be sold better.

Whatever the administrative rationale of the government to streamline procedures – even at the expense of fairness – the Swiss people’s support for more restrictive policies is perhaps due also to growing skepticism about globalization.

There is the downward pressure on wages and benefits, corporate outsourcing, little-understood international decisions in the framework of the European Union, and an awareness of the lack of globalization gains for the Third World.

In the United States, in the meantime, the debate on illegal immigration and what to do about it continues to cook on the front burner. It is expected to make a difference in some contests of the November 11 congressional election.

Republican voters and politicians are split on the issue, as is even the Congress itself: the Senate (and the President) want a guest worker program, the House of Representatives repatriation of illegal immigrants.


Given such discrepancies, the party may yet try to downplay the issue for November. More alarming is another wave of nativism at the grassroots – and I sense a touch of such feelings in the Swiss vote as well.

America has a long history of anti-foreigner stirrings, from the contra-Irish Know-Nothing movement of the 1830s to draconian national-origin quotas against southern and eastern European immigrants that survived until 1965.

A common theme has been to make scapegoats of foreigners. Today accusations are that immigrants commit crimes, steal jobs, or prompt inter-ethnic tension by insisting on being different.

Let’s take a step back and consider that the immigration phenomenon is much larger than any popular argument, particular proposal, or vote currently focuses on. And it is also much more complex.


What we know is that the number of people of working age on the Swiss and US side is declining, and it is assumed that we need immigration to replenish our workforces.

There is also a consensus, based on US economic research, that there is a definite, if small, net benefit to present-day immigration in terms of aggregate economic growth. I suspect the findings are similar for Switzerland.

What we don’t know (or do not know enough about) is what the economic, social and political conditions will be like beyond the next ten years or so. New immigration laws may soon be obsolete because there is no certainty on future boom or bust, social currents, or political constellations.

Another imponderable is the complexity of social-psychological processes that create unease vis-à-vis people we perceive as different. Maybe we have studied such feelings in individuals and small groups, but we may only guess how, in the aggregate, hostile movements with their own dynamics may emerge.

A third question relates to the complexities of tension, unrest, political strife and economic misery in sender countries, which are inevitably distant from us and hard to anticipate.


Even if we do understand some or parts of the above issues, we are often at a loss about what to do. Sensible solutions probably include making population forecasts a much-discussed topic in public so that citizens understand the future labor market.

Another suggestion would be to advocate actions that deal with effects of globalization like plant closures, cheap foreign merchandise, or ambitions of poor countries to do better in world markets.

Subsidies could be paid to non-profit organizations that help immigrants and promote integration. And schools could be helped to cope with the challenges of multilingual classes by boosting teacher training, civic education for immigrants, and community support.

Finally, it would surely make sense to develop a blueprint for comprehensive local and regional housing policies, which would be a good thing at any rate, in the face of demographic shifts.

And let’s acknowledge that Switzerland hasn’t done too badly coping with a large population share of immigrants, given that it has 23 percent foreign-born as a share of total population.


Leaving aside Liechtenstein and Luxembourg, that’s the largest proportion in Europe. Most Americans don’t know that, and they should admire a country that has not experienced major confrontations over race and national origin.

In many ways, the United States hasn’t done badly either, of course. Nativism is strong in some states or regions, confirming that where economic weaknesses prevail, blame is laid before immigrant workers.

Scores of places have integrated newcomers well. How come that my home town, Silver Spring, Maryland, with a 46 percent White population, 28 percent African-American, 22 percent Hispanic (of any race), and eight percent Asian (2000 census figures), feels very much like the true America we were once told about?

Let me close with the words of the early multiculturalist (before the word even existed), Zora Neale Hurston of the Harlem Renaissance, who said in 1928: “I feel like a brown bag of miscellany … in company with other bags, white, red, and yellow. Pour out the contents, and there is discovered a jumble of small things …– so much like the jumble in the [other] bags, could they be emptied. … [They] all might be dumped in a single heap and the bags refilled without altering the content of any greatly. … Perhaps that is how the Great Stuffer of Bags filled them in the first place—who knows?”

So, looking at immigration, be proud of yourself, but also tough with yourself; be smart, be friendly with all people: it’s good for the economy, it’s good for you; be happy!

Jurg Siegenthaler

The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of swissinfo.

Every month retired professor, Jurg Siegenthaler, compares and contrasts aspects of life in Switzerland with that of his adopted homeland, the United States.

He emigrated to the United States from Switzerland in 1967, and is now a retired university professor living close to Washington, DC. He is a graduate of Bern University (Dr.rer.pol., 1966).

His fields of teaching and research encompassed economic history, social theory and social policy analysis. Throughout his career, he has maintained close comparative research interests in the US and Switzerland.

He is associated with the Institute for Socio-Financial Studies, a research non-profit that has done a lot of work improving financial literacy at the community level.

Since his retirement, Jurg Siegenthaler has broadened his involvement in community organizations and in the arts. He is married and lives with his wife in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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