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Is it reactionary to oppose Immigration?

Note: This article was also published on webdiary on 19 December 2007. It had attracted 69 comments by 24 December 2007.

Andy Kerr, former president of Alternatives to Growth Oregon, posed these questions, "To those who support generous immigration, I ask you this: Why are you are on the same side as Microsoft and the other huge computer corporations and of Archer Daniel Midland and the rest of the agribusiness lobby? How can you support a policy that helps ensure that our existing poor will never be adequately valued for their labor."

Kerr's questions could well be asked of so many left-wing critics whose first reflexive response to closed border arguments are that they are "right-wing", "reactionary", "racist" or "xenophobic", despite the fact that historically the first beneficiaries of mass immigration to North America, and several other localities, have been cheap labour employers. Naomi Klein, in "The Shock Doctrine" blemishes her excellent analysis with this commonplace attitude.

If Klein wanted to probe the shock therapy applied by big capital by using immigration as a battering ram to break down the working class, she need only have looked to the history of British Columbia, where her brother Seth labours for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

In the nineteenth century Chinese labour contractors imported labour to the point that perhaps one-third of the entire workforce had become Chinese. Working for half the wages, paying no taxes, they were prepared to ignore safety regulations, so the Dunsmuir Coal Company used them to break a pivotal miners' strike in 1883.The Miners Union then presented a resolution to government to restrict Chinese labourers from working underground, and another one stating that these labourers were a menace to underground safety, had lowered wages, deterred other Canadians from seeking employment in B.C., offered unfair competition and were provocative to public peace.

In 1907 five Tokyo immigration companies filled an order to bring 6,000 Japanese labourers to work for the Canadian Pacific Railway (C.P.R.) when the province was experiencing a recession. B.C. workers were against the ropes, so the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council met to form an "Asiatic Exclusion League". Two days later a Japanese ship arrived with 1177 labourers. The chemistry was right for the infamous Vancouver anti-Asian riot of September 7, 1907, an incident which has been retroactively depicted as a simple and despicable act of racism. In fact it was a reaction to B.C. businesses which were then using Japanese cheap surplus labourers instead of their Chinese counterparts. It should be known that Native Indians also seethed with resentment at the Japanese presence.

Chinese immigrant labour had finally been slapped by a "head tax" by the federal government in response to decades of lobbying by the B.C. to level the playing field with Canadian labourers. But they wouldn't they wouldn't follow suit with a similar tax on Japanese labour for fear of jeopardizing trade arrangements with Japan. Hence the end run by employers and the pogrom by B. C. workers. To demonstrate labour's outrage at the collusion between now Lieutenant-Governor Dunsmuir and the orchestrate the Japanese influx, a Socialist legislator moved a motion in the B.C. House that Dunsmuir be impeached.

It should also be noted ---and this is always omitted by revisionists-the Oriental Exclusion Act was actually a misnomer. It was in reality, the Oriental Labourers Exclusion Act. Chinese merchants and their families continued to enjoy access to Canada. The purpose of the omission is obvious, to foster guilt and shame so that an agenda of "justice" an restitution can be pursued by Canada's immigration industry so that corporate Canada can have its labour requirements satisfied in the same way that robber baron Robert Dunsmuir's was. Just 30 miles from where he used Chinese labour to break the miners strike of 1883, the corporation I was working for used Chinese labour to try and break my strike a century later. As waves of Chinese, fresh from Hong Kong, passed through my picket line, escorted by police, it occurred to me that I was having a "multicultural" experience. I was so enriched. Like the miners were in 1883.

The same misrepresentation and spin was made of the "Komagata Maru" incident where East Indians were denied entry at the Port of Vancouver. Does this mean that racist antagonisms did not alloy with legitimate economic grievances? It would stretch credulity to argue that case, particularly in light of the outrageous internment of Japanese-Canadians in 1942, the fact that Chinese-Canadians were denied the vote until 1948, or the right to own property in the exclusive British Properties among other indignities. But should illegitimate motives discredit and invalidate the very cogent arguments of working people to defend their livelihood?

These arguments have been made by socialists and trade unionists not only in Canada but in America a century ago by Jack London, Socialist Party leader Victor Gerber, and the legendary Samuel Gompers. They were also made by the heroic Cesar Chavez who was committed to restricting immigration. Chavez even picketed the border and reported illegal aliens who served as strike-breakers against United Farm Workers.

Today leading labour economists have carried on the fight. Dr. George Borgias of Harvard University is most notably among them. It is his contention that native-born American workers lose $152 billion annually because of job displacement and wage depression caused by immigration. And yet, how does the labour movement respond? This is what the Carrying Capacity Network asks:

"The AFL-CIO, the biggest labor union in the country, is AGAIN urging Congress to give amnesty to as many as 13 million illegal immigrants. Result: depressed wages and lost jobs for Americans while rewarding lawbreakers with the right to work and potential citizenship. Isn't the AFL-CIO sanctioning lawbreaking by pushing for an amnesty?"

Where does the Canadian labour movement stand? You can guess. In a letter dated May 4/06 to Minister of Public Safety Stockwell Day and Minister of Immigration and Citizenship Monte Solberg, Secretary Treasurer of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) Hassan Yussuf complained about the "zealotry" of the Canadian Border Services Agency. "(They) aggressively deported a number of undocumented residents, particularly those from the Portugese community as well as targeting members of the Asian, Chinese, Caribbean and Latin/Central-American communites. The manner in which those deportations were handled exposed a government acting with excessive zeal, hardness, and in some cases, an inexcusable lack of humanity.

I suppose the more "humane" course of action for the CLC would be just to let everybody who wants to come to Canada stay. Open borders. One world. John Lennon's dream. Just imagine. But that's globalism isn't it? Who will speak for the Canadian workers whose wages and working conditions are being hammered by this vision of brotherhood? Why, the CLC of course. Like its political arm, the NDP, it claims to represent them. Yussuf's letter concludes: "The CLC representing more than 3 million workers, joins with those calling for a moratorium on all CBSA deportation/detention activities."

How about a moratorium on immigration instead? That would do more for those 3 million workers. And more than a swift process, in the CLC's words, to "regularlize undocumented workers.whose skills are in need and who have been contributing to the economy." You have to love the CLC's politically-correct language. Calling an illegal immigrant an "undocumented resident" is like calling a drug-pusher an "unlicensed pharmacist". How does the labour movement like it when people call scabs "replacement workers"? And why doesn't the CLC just call "regularize" what it is---amnesty for law-breakers, or, as Geoffrey Blainey once put it, "an incentive for others to arrive, hoping to benefit from further amnesty."

Contemporary socialist and trade union affinity toward international solidarity even at the expense of national well-being can be traced to a Marxist legacy that sees class, not nationality, as the primary divide. Even social democracy taps into this tradition which combines as one strand in a muddled xenophilia with Christian and environmental thought. The latter mutation is expressed quintessentially in the Canadian Green Party line that since global warming is a global problem requiring global cooperation, to obtain this we must not send out an unfriendly message of "fear" by closing our borders, but on the contrary drop them instead. Presumably a radically downward adjustment in consumption habits and greener technology will compensate for all the extra millions who would swarm in. Instead of "workers of the world unite", the Greens offer us a new rallying cry: "more and more people, consuming less and less".

What is interesting is that American icon, Ralph Nader, Green Party candidate for President, does not share this Canadian love affair with the world. He had this to say in 2000: "We cannot have open borders. That's a totally absurd proposition. It would depress wages here enormously, and tens of millions of people from all levels, including scientists and workers, would be pouring into this country."

Australian political scientist Frank Salter had this to say about the socialist attitude to nationalism. "The Left, as it has evolved over the course of the previous century, looks down on the ordinary people with their inarticulate parochialisms as if the were members of another species. since they care nothing for the preservation of national communities. Ethnies are considered irrelevant to the welfare of people in general. It would be understandable to Martians to be so detached from particular loyalties. But it is disturbing to humans doing so, especially humans who identify with the Left."

Such is the European Left's identification with the Other at the cost of the resident national that, in the name of anti-racism, it was possible for left-wing novelist Umberto Eco to declare his hope that Europe would be swamped by Africans and third world emigrants just so to "demoralize" racists. And such is the identification of the AFL-CIO with 13 million illegal immigrants as potential recruits that it supports amnesty and essentially a corporate welfare program that reduces wages for the lowest of American workers. A scheme which advocates call "liberalism" but American workers call an invasion. The CLC (Edgar Bergen) and its social-democratic parliamentary arm, the NDP (Charlie McCarthy), sing the same tune. Crocodile tears are shed for "undocumented" workers who allegedly make great contributions to the economy, according to their hire-a-left-wing-think-tank. But Statistics Canada's conclusions about the effect of immigration on the Canadian work force echo those of Dr. Borgias for American workers. Except the May 2007 Statscan report showed that in Canada, it was the educated workers who were really taking a hit. Between 1980-2000 their wages dropped 7%. And in Britain, careful analysis revealed that the Trade Union Congress was wrong in its contention that amnesty would net the Treasury one billion pounds annually. Rather it would cost taxpayers 1.8 billion pounds a year.

But alas, socialist thought is not monolithic. The Leninists were wrong. For the working class, national identity was as important as class identity, or as Orwell put it, "in all countries, the poor are more national than the rich." If they can't find a voice on the Left, in desperation they will look to the Populist right, as they did recently in Switzerland. But just when it looked like the field was left entirely to globalists, maverick social-democratic and socialist leaders in the tradition of Berger, London, or Canada's J. S. Woodsworth are staking a claim for national, as opposed to international, solidarity. They are doing so after their constituents have been battered by one of the greatest migratory waves in history, that saw the United States for example import the equivalent of three New Jerseys in the 1990s alone, or 25 million people. One would have thought that Naomi Klein, a Canadian, would have known that the Father of Canadian democratic socialism, the Saint of Canadian politics, the Rev. J. S. Woodsworth steadfastly opposed immigration throughout his leadership in the 1920s and 30s. Woodsworth understood that his constituency was in Canada, not overseas. His motto was no doubt that of Vancouver Rev. Edwin Scott: "We are not universal nations yet. Universal nationality and universal brotherhood are two different things."

The Democratic Socialist Senator of Vermont, Bernie Sanders, has begun to make some noise about the disaster that is the illegal immigration invasion in the United States. His voting record in reducing chain migration, fighting amnesty and unnecessary visas rates B-, B-, and A+ respectively from Americans for Better Immigration. "If poverty is increasing and if wages are going down, I don't know why we need millions of people to be coming into this country as guest workers who will work for lower wages than American workers and drive wages down even lower than they are now." To Sanders the American working, middle class is caught in a squeeze. "On the one hand, you have large multi-nationals trying to shut down plants in America, move to China and on the other hand you have the service industry bringing in lower wage workers from abroad. The result is the same-the middle class gets shrunk and wages go down." Five million people have left the middle class during Bush administration, Sanders observes.

Other social-democratic leaders have spoken out against open borders. Former Social Democratic Chancellor Helmut Schmidt now admits that immigration under his government was excessive and damaging to Germany. In a book published in 1982 he confessed that "with idealistic intentions, born out of our experiences with the Third Reich, we brought in far too many foreigners." Dutch Socialist leader Jan Marijnissen is strongly opposed to the practice of importing East European workers to undermine the position of Dutch workers. East Europeans are hired as "independent contractors" to circumvent labour law. Marijnissen wrote "It is unacceptable that employers pay foreign workers 3 euros per hour and have them live in chicken coops as they were in competition in the nineteenth century of Dickens. The unfair competition and displacement of Dutch workers and small business is intolerable. Therefore we shouldn't open the borders further, but set limits instead."

Setting limits. Acknowledging limits. That is the great divide. In the past those limits have been perceived to be economic by those with the sense to perceive them. Now, some on the left are beginning to realize that the more unforgiving and immutable limits are set by nature. Former Labor Premier of NSW , Bob Carr, and his fellow Laborite retired veteran MP Barry Cohen joined environmental leaders Tim Flannery and Ian Lowe in exposing the myth of Australia as a big empty land begging to be filled up with people. Said Carr, "our rivers, our soils, our vegetation, won't allow that to happen enormous cost to us and those who follow us." Carr and Cohen call for severe immigration cut-backs and a population policy put in place.

In Klein's Canada, meanwhile, the phrase "carrying capacity" is as unknown in the socialist lexicon as it is the corporate. Biologists and ecologists might as well be speaking ancient Aramaic to leftists to make them understand that their human rights agenda cannot be built on an environment that will not sustain it. Canada cannot become the soup kitchen to tens of millions of refugees, nor can vital biodiversity services coexist with a population of 50 million Canadians. In economic jargon, its called "diseconomies of scale". In the language of real science, its called a "limiting factor".

This essay began with two questions from Andy Kerr. It will end with six or seven of mine.

Why? Why has opposition to a policy of mass immigration, a policy that drives down the wages of marginal workers, middle-income workers and professional workers been characterized and vilified as "right-wing" and "reactionary". Why has earlier socialist and trade union understanding of the negative consequences of this policy been overtaken by "love thy neighbour" zeitgeist of the post-war era? Why is the "Left" on the same side as the "Right"? The same side as Microsoft, ADM, the real estate developers and the cheap labour employers?

It is high time to challenge this labeling and to challenge those who use it to prevent thoughtful discussion. The question that needs to be posed today is not the conventional one, is it Left or is it Right? But rather, do we accept that there are Limits, or do we continue to persist in the fantasy that this country, and others, is a massive treasure trove of boundless resources waiting to be unlocked by an endless number of people who can exploit them without ecological consequences?

History shows, sadly, that the latter delusion is shared equally among the devotees of both Adam Smith and the Communist Manifesto and its derivatives.

Tim Murray,
Quadra Island, B.C.
December 16, 2007.