Global Doors Slam Shut on Immigrants

Article excerpt

While Arizona's anti-immigrant law gets all the attention, countries around the world are pursuing tough immigration polices on a scale rarely seen in history.

In this town of 800,000, illegal immigrants beg in the middle of streets and linger along the railway tracks that clack incessantly with boxcars ferrying food and textiles. They cook over open fires under highway overpasses. They sleep by day on dirty backpacks that bulge with a life's belongings and wait for taco stands and cantinas to close at night to plead for leftovers.

While the migrants draw sympathy from those who give them the coins from their pockets, others just want them to go home. "Some people say, 'Oh the poor migrants,' but not when you have been assaulted as I have," says Blanca Estela Perez, a waitress and cook at a restaurant who says one of her employees was robbed of a week's pay last month. "I do not like them here. Not at all."

It sounds like the sentiments of an exasperated resident of Texas or Arizona on the US-Mexican border. But actually, this is Tultitlan, in central Mexico, and the migrants overrunning this industrial city of smokestacks and sweat come from Central America and beyond.

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Just as Americans want Mexicans out, Mexicans, who might be tolerant of their country as a passageway north to the United States, have no patience with the undocumented Guatemalans and Hondurans increasingly falling short of their destinations. Nor are their feelings of resentment unique. Around the world, the welcome mat for outsiders is being rolled up on a scale rarely seen in history as economies continue to struggle and worries about cultural identities rise.

In Europe, some countries have attempted to pay Africans and others to head back home, while Israelis are legislating against immigration in the name of demographic survival. Across continents, countries have closed doors on vulnerable refugees, and, in some places, nativism has reached such heights that urban residents even want their own rural migrants banished outside city limits.

Anti-immigrant sentiment, of course, has been a recurring theme throughout history. Just look at the reaction that boatloads of Irish and Italians got when they landed on America's doorstep in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Yet today the antipathy toward newcomers is more widespread, even if usually less violent. The number of people living outside their country of birth is larger than at any time in history, in part because it has never been easier to communicate and relocate. An impoverished villager in Bolivia need only flip on a television set to see opportunities awaiting him or her in Spain. The United Nations Population Division (UNDP) estimates that the world has about 200 million international migrants. If they created their own country, it would become the fifth largest in the world.

Contrary to popular perception, anti-immigrant sentiment today isn't just about rich nations shunning the mass arrival of migrants from poorer ones. It is poor nations sending their huddled masses to other poor nations. It is rich countries sending people to other rich ones. It is countries acting as transit corridors - switching stations of humanity. According to the UNDP, only about one-third of migrants move from a developing country to a developed one.

"We in the West have the tendency to feel overwhelmed when migrants arrive," says Thomas Weiss, chief of mission in Mexico City for the International Organization for Migration. "This is without understanding exactly that many developing countries are at the present facing irregular flows that are much stronger and much more difficult to be absorbed by society and by local labor markets."

Much of the resistance to outsiders stems from familiar fears: that the immigrants will take jobs, tax services, increase crime, and alter national identities. …