Keep enterprise zones open to tired and poor

November 17, 2006

In denying migrants ambition and opportunity, America kills the can-do spirit that gives people hope, argues Irshad Manji

Probably no phenomenon today is more global in reach than the mass migration of people. When I say "global", I am not measuring by simple distance - I am measuring by daily impact.

Whether individuals may cross borders safely, permanently and with dignity affects everything from how hard your children must work for a university place to how much you pay for a house and how soon a fast-food franchise will appear near your flat. Migration is the human heart of "globalisation" - the movement of people, technology, money and, inevitably, cultural influence.

In the coming year, we will witness globalisation accelerating in a weird way. It will not just be American culture invading European life. Rather, Europe will be exporting its attitudes to America - at least, when it comes to immigration.

Soon, the newly elected US Congress will be forced to consider legislation that keeps out the very people whom the Statue of Liberty proclaims she wants: the poor and the tired. Historically, America has loved its wretched, starving newcomers. They have been the only ones desperate enough to believe in the American Dream. By believing in it, many have achieved it.

But these potential millionaires pose a political problem. They may be tired, but they still have the energy to toil 20 hours a day for little money. To America's bloated middle class, that is a threat. While unions complain that immigrants are undercutting wages, the non-unionised charge that immigrants are stealing jobs from "real Americans". Ethnicity creeps into economics and makes for a very European fear of the future.

Still, globalisation distributes power in several directions. This means that many immigrants will fight back. Be they Mexicans in America's South or Moroccans in the European Union, I already hear them expressing a message of defiance: "You need us as much as we need you. When we are allowed to work legally, we can pay our taxes. We can finance social security, hospital beds and pensions - all the things you first-world types need because of your low birth rates, ageing populations and expectations of material comforts. For your own sake, give us jobs instead of grief!"

I sympathise with this argument. Maybe it is because I am a refugee to North America myself. My family and I fled Idi Amin's Uganda in 1972 and settled in Vancouver, Canada. Throughout childhood, I watched my mother delay gratification and sweat for the next dollar - to the point where my sisters and I spent Christmas vacations alone because Mum, a manual labourer, earned double the pay during those "holiday" weeks. She slaved and saved so we would not have to do either. Mum taught us the dignity of making our future bigger than our past.

If earning one's keep is the key to achieving dignity, then Europe will soon understand that egalitarianism is the wrong ideal for immigrants and their host societies. Egalitarianism is a fancy word for equality of result. While equality of result sounds compassionate, it is only a shortcut to compassion.

On a recent visit to Copenhagen, I repeatedly heard the joke that "our borders are closed but our coffers are open". Denmark's unions have managed to stop immigrants entering certain trades, so workers can preserve their high incomes. But in an egalitarian gesture, union leaders convinced the Government to pay skilled unemployed immigrants almost the same money that native workers earn. That way, they assumed, discrimination would be avoided.

It turns out that egalitarianism itself is fuelling discrimination. Young, jobless Muslims tend to feel stripped of their ambition. Employers have not developed an incentive to take them seriously. A year ago, the Democratic Muslims of Denmark formed to fight radical Islam. They do more than denounce reactionary imams. Among their strategies is to organise career fairs for Muslim youth who need hope.

Perhaps the US and Western Europe should take a hint from the old Muslim empire. Between the 8th and 14th centuries, Islamic civilisation led the world in innovation because Muslims engaged the imagination of outsiders.

The harvest? Several hundred years of creativity in agriculture, astronomy, chemistry, medicine, commerce, maths - even fashion. It is when the Muslim empire became insular to "protect" itself that the motivation to remain robust, and the talent to do so, disappeared.

That is why my heart breaks at the growing Europeanisation of America. I gladly acknowledge that the US has much to learn from its transatlantic cousins on issues such as women's rights and the environment. But if politicians in Washington are going to tell foreign arrivals that they cannot work hard and stand tall, then they should send America's most enduring immigrant, the Statue of Liberty, back to her native France. Much of Europe could use her spirit.

Irshad Manji is a senior fellow with the European Foundation for Democracy and the author of The Trouble with Islam Today: A Wake-Up Call for Honesty and Change, published by Mainstream, £7.99.

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