By George Friedman
On Sept. 4, Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) was defeated in its race to control the Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania state government. The CDU finished third, after the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party, which came in second. This defeat is significant because this was the home region for Angela Merkel, who has been German chancellor for over a decade. Last week, Donald Trump met with the Mexican president and, upon his return to the U.S., delivered a major address on immigration. Also, the Hungarian and Serbian prime ministers met this week and warned of increasing migration into Europe, discussing plans to stem the tide.
Merkel’s party’s defeat in her home region comes exactly a year after Hungary, overwhelmed by the inflow of migrants from Syria, tried to block their movement, and Merkel redefined European policy on immigration by opening German borders to all refugees. The election result shows not only the political unpopularity of her move in Germany. It also drives home that the reaction against immigration in both Europe and the United States is not dying down. It has not yet reached a point where anti-immigration sentiment is taking widespread political control in most countries involved. But it has become a transnational movement that cannot be ignored and is not going away.
Dominant mainstream parties’ first strategy to marginalize anti-immigration elements was to identify them as racists. The assumption was that if anti-immigrant forces were equivalent to the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, those who saw themselves as mainstream would shun the anti-immigrant movement. The strategy had little effect. The anti-immigration sentiment was sufficiently strong and widespread that the charge of racism did not deter it. The movement was large enough that it could not be marginalized by the label. I would argue that the label had, to some extent, an effect opposite to that which was desired. The anti-immigration faction would not shift and took the position that if that meant they were racists, well and good. For those opposed to immigration, the charge tended to legitimize racism, rather than marginalize the anti-immigrant movement. The mainstream parties had lost the power to define the mainstream.
There are obvious reasons for the hostility to immigration. One is economic. Since 2008, the European economic system has at different times deteriorated or stagnated. In the United States, the economy has stopped growing rapidly. Throughout Europe and the U.S., life has become more difficult, particularly for those earning the median income. These segments of society especially feared the impact of large numbers of immigrants on wages and unemployment. Those political parties on the left that had historically supported the interests of the lower half of society were the most vociferous opponents of the anti-immigrant sentiment. That lower-income half of society was left with no representation. Therefore, the door opened to the emergence of parties that were opposed to immigration. They merged this position with hostility to the mainstream parties that many in the lower half felt had abandoned them.
The issue of immigration became entangled with terrorism and crime. There is a war underway, and on occasion radical Islamists launch attacks in Europe. Large waves of migrants likely include at least a handful of jihadists, and a handful is enough to launch a terrorist attack. The fear in countries like France was palpable, and leaders like French President François Hollande announced that there was a war. Large-scale migration, which provided cover for terrorists, seemed to make no sense. The sense of embattlement forced the mainstream to take anti-immigrant sentiment much more seriously, further opening the door for anti-immigrant parties.
In the United States, the fear of immigrant criminality is not frivolous. Throughout the United States’ history, immigrants such as the Scotch-Irish, the Catholic Irish, the Italians, the Jews and so on contained significant criminal elements. As these groups settled in the U.S., elements of the first and second generation peeled off into criminality. I have no doubt that their grandchildren are on the boards of hospitals and museums. But Mexican migration is no different from other migration and it brings with it street crime and, similar to Italian migration, organized crime stretching to the home country. This builds wariness, if not ostracism, from earlier generations of immigrants.
I grew up in the Bronx. Running numbers, dealing dope and shaking down store owners was part of life for some first-generation immigrants. Most of us kept our heads down and looked forward to when we could leave the old neighborhood, which for some bizarre reason I am now sentimental toward. I knew the Jews who ran the gambling, hired Irish muscle and paid Italians for protection. And when the Puerto Ricans moved in, they took over the gambling, and the Jews, Irish and Italians moved to the suburbs. Ninety-nine percent of the Puerto Ricans were like our parents, busting their chops to make a living and sending us to school. But it was the 1 percent that scared us, and anyone not afraid was not in touch with reality.
There was a phrase used back then: limousine liberals. They were people who went to Groton and Yale and came back to lecture us on how we should embrace each other. They hadn’t a clue about what went on in the streets and we were pretty sure they didn’t care. They weren’t talking to us. They were talking about us, trying to demonstrate our ignorant fear, and how they hoped to make us better people. God knows they weren’t going to tangle with the guys with knives and guns.
I don’t live in an area with a large contingent of Mexican immigrants. But I am sure that 99 percent of them just want to get out of those neighborhoods and have their kids become doctors or accountants. I also know that the 1 percent of punks and gangsters are no joke and if I had no education and no job I’d be living among them. And I know I would be afraid, as those who lived in the Bronx before the Jews, Irish and Italians settled there were afraid of them. In the end, I would like to think that those of us who survived came out better citizens, as will happen to Mexican immigrants. But let’s not kid ourselves. Being a stranger in a strange land is a dangerous thing all around.
It is not this process that alienates those in the bottom half of society from those way above them. It is the dishonesty or the ignorance that tells us there is nothing to be afraid of and we should be ashamed of being afraid. This has opened the door to Donald Trump and the European right. When Trump talks about Mexican rapists and killers, he is speaking about a small handful of Mexicans. From the point of view of those who went to Groton and Yale, that is very few and not worth talking about. For those who walk the streets with them, it is that tiny handful that terrifies. And when the mainstream parties dismiss their fear, they make the anti-immigration movement stronger.
I am pro-immigration. I have to be. I was born in Hungary. I went through the grinder of assimilation, the fear of violence and the contempt of the better born. I also know from American history that the country I live in could not have been built without immigrants. Where would we be had the English not migrated here? And I know that Europe’s population numbers are falling and that they need workers and many of the available workers will be Muslim.
But the advocates of immigration should not make it sound so easy. Many of them do not live in the neighborhoods where immigrants sort themselves out. They don’t apply for jobs where the willingness to work for a few cents less an hour means the difference between working and telling your kids you didn’t get the job. It is not that immigration isn’t necessary, but the pious advocates for immigration don’t live in the meat grinder where the old poor and the newly arrived poor meet.
There is finally the question of assimilation. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that I could choose to not learn English or look like other Americans. I knew in my bones that my only road out of the old neighborhood was to transform myself into an American. Why else would my parents have brought me here? I was bilingual and still am. But I spoke Hungarian only at home and English at school. I knew a secret that seems to have been forgotten today. At home, there is one culture. Outside, there is another. The latter is the culture of those who could throw a curveball, live in the apartments on Central Park South and give their kids what I didn’t have. They were decent people, they invited me in to play. But it was their bat, their ball and their rules. Now, they are mine.
In Europe, it is harder to get into their game and that is what makes Europe different from the U.S. In the United States, the meat grinder grinds fine, but there is an exit if you can find it. In Europe, I’m not sure whether you can ever get out of the meat grinder. I became an American by playing by American rules. I’m not sure there is such a path in Europe.
But I know this about both places. Immigration is tough and it is dangerous both to the immigrants and those who welcome them. Immigration is necessary, but it carries a price for all sides. Until the real story of immigration is told, the anti-immigration parties will rise and the center will become harder to believe or respect.