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Land of immigration a “nationalist construct”

US President Barack Obama has promised immigration reform Reuters

Immigration is a key political talking point in Switzerland and the United States, with discussions focusing on restrictions to migration and who should be allowed in.

Swiss historian and immigration specialist Leo Schelbert tells that his homeland is not more hostile towards migrants than other nations, and that America is not as welcoming as it makes out.

In an election year, Switzerland’s rightwing People’s Party has announced that it will launch a people’s initiative to restrict immigration, claiming that allowing too many foreigners into the country is leading to overpopulation.  This would involve primarily dropping a free movement accord with the European Union.

In the US, President Obama is pushing his agenda on immigration as he seeks re-election next year. He promised last month to pursue enforcement of the law and border security. But he also promised to punish businesses that exploit illegal immigrants and to provide a path to legal residency for this group that includes paying fines. The United States views itself as the country of immigration. President Obama has said, for instance, that “immigration is an idea as old as America”. Is that correct or is it simply a mindset?

Leo Schelbert: That’s what is taught in schools here, but it’s a nationalist construction. The United States is the only country that has built immigration into its nationalist self-definition. Historians are the main ideologues who have pushed that idea and my viewpoint is somewhat heretical.

However, the United States is not so much a country of immigration as a country of conquest and repeopling. First, there was conquest and destruction. Between 1600 and 1890, the Native American population declined from seven or 12 million to only 250,000. Then, there was the repeopling of a space emptied of indigenous people by racial cleansing. Indeed, the founding fathers saw no possibility of the two populations living together. In such a context, immigrants were part of a racial war and conquest, regardless of their personal circumstances. In effect, they would be more accurately described as settlers or re-settlers.

Switzerland on the other hand is a country of immigration as well as a country of emigration. If one considers the intensity of immigration, that is the relation of the size of the indigenous Swiss population to the foreign-born population, one realises that the intensity of immigration to Switzerland is far higher than in the US. From 1870 to 1914, 410,000 Swiss went abroad while 409,000 foreigners moved to Switzerland. When did the US become a country of immigration?

L.S.: In the 1920s when the government created the quota system. That system meant that the conquest phase was over. Immigration to the US then became comparable to any other country and based on the needs of the nation. A widespread impression, notably among descendants of Swiss immigrants, is that people came to the US to escape poverty in the home country. True or false?

L.S.: The poverty claim is also a myth. Swiss immigration to the US is fundamentally a socio-economic phenomenon still to this day. Historically, emigrants from Switzerland were from all socio-economic levels. Those who left Switzerland did so because of jobs. In the 1840s-1850s, textile factories being built elsewhere shut down the domestic industry. In some regions, local authorities paid people to leave. But it was not because of poverty; it was people who had lost their jobs and didn’t want to work in factories where conditions were awful. The US and some states like Michigan and Indiana, as well as companies, used propaganda in Switzerland to say there was cheap land available in America.

The 1915 listing of people who came to the US between 1860 and 1880 shows that the very poor accounted for only about ten per cent of immigrants. About 30 per cent were people who by today’s standards would be considered low income. Most newcomers were solid middle class and three per cent were rich. That was also true in the 20th century. Moreover, the immigration system was income-based. The poor couldn’t afford to emigrate to the US and the rich didn’t have to go through Ellis Island, which was only for less wealthy people. Americans and their media, mainly since the referendum on banning minarets, have criticised the racism that, they say, is directed at immigrants in Switzerland. Is the history of the US that of a welcoming country toward immigrants?

L.S.: Hostility to the foreigner is very visible in Switzerland. However, sentiments expressed by the Tea Party are nothing new in American society. Immigrants have repeatedly been demonised in US history. Some because they were Catholic, like the Irish.

Wars and military service have often helped immigrants to be accepted. The Civil War legitimised the Irish, the First World War legitimised the east Europeans. But the US still think of itself as a country of protestants and whites.

Apart from the slaves brought from Africa, coloured people, black or brown from Africa, Asia and elsewhere, were banned from immigration into the US until 1965. That’s why the election of President Obama was such an important breakthrough. I was delighted by it, yet I could not believe it. His victory marked a magnificent opening about what America is.

Today, the hostility of many Americans focuses on the Hispanics who form 51 per cent of the new immigrants, are Catholic and have brown skin. Like in Switzerland, the ultra right wants to close the doors. The centre and left, President Obama in particular, say that the US is a pluralistic and a welcoming country for those who follow the rules and learn English.

Leo Schelbert was born in canton St Gallen in 1929. He left for New York in 1959 to write his PhD thesis at Columbia University. He then taught at Rutgers University before moving to the University of Illinois in Chicago.

A specialist of the history of immigration to the United States, he is the author or editor of nine books, including New Glarus. The Making of a Swiss American Town, and has produced over 60 research articles during his career.

He has never applied for American citizenship, is married to an American of  Swiss and Irish extraction and has four children.

In 2006, he was awarded the centre-right Radical Party’s Swiss abroad prize.

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