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To resolve the immigration debate, we must face our groupish nature

REUTERS/Scanpix Sweden
The riots in Sweden this summer, which echo those in France in 2005 and Britain in 2011, were especially disheartening because of Sweden’s reputation for well-being and social harmony.

The riots in Sweden this summer, which echo those in France in 2005 and Britain in 2011, were especially disheartening because of Sweden’s reputation for well-being and social harmony. Across Europe, Muslim immigration is stirring up strong emotion. In the United States, the debate over immigration reform is having the same effect. Why does immigration elicit so much emotion?

Mariah Levison
Mariah Levison

At its root, immigration is a manifestation of the human drive to improve one’s life circumstances. The vast majority of people leave their homeland in pursuit of only two things – safety and economic opportunity. They would not do so if they thought there was a way – any other way – to achieve these objectives. 

Immigrating is hard. I know this because I lived abroad for three years. I know this because my great-grandfather detested immigrating so much that he returned to the Pogroms in Russia three times before acquiescing to stay in the United States. I know this because I have spent lots of time with Mexican immigrants. Living in a land where you don’t speak the language, where you look different than everyone else, where people stare at you, where you can’t see your family on a regular basis, where you lack a social network to rely on and where some people make you feel unwelcome is HARD. I know this from firsthand experience and I know it from many friends and clients who have divulged their experiences.

Being born in the United States or Western Europe is a privilege that citizens of these countries did nothing to deserve. I cannot find room in my heart to be angry with someone who comes to my country illegally to try to take advantage of the same opportunities that I reap through no effort on my part.

Hard-wired to form groups

Social psychological research indicates that human beings are hard-wired to form groups and to favor members of their group (in-group members). In a famous experiment, researchers grouped people together who had absolutely nothing in common and ensured that they knew that. The researchers then gave them some money and told them to distribute it to members of their group and members of another group. The participants gave more money to the members of their group than the other group even though they did not know the members of either group or share anything in common with the members of their group.

Why do people favor members of their own group? It is probably an evolutionary adaptation. Members of our own group are more likely to return favors and so we are more likely to bestow favors upon them. In the hardscrabble days of the caveman era, redeeming favors increased the likelihood of survival which bred the trait into the human race.

National identity is a central form of group identification. Immigration does change national cultures. In the southern United States Mexican food abounds, there are Spanish TV and radio stations, you hear Spanish music in the mall, see larger families, and Texas, yes Texas, is purpling. I gather that similar changes are taking in place in Europe – there are more mosques, Arabic is heard on the streets and England is a great place to get Indian food. These changes scare people because being groupish is a part of human nature. These immigrants are part of a different group and that feels threatening to our group.

Economic angst

Class is the root of many issues that appear to be about race. Economic angst in the U.S. and Europe intensify anti-immigration feelings. Globalization and technological innovation make good jobs harder and harder to find. Immigration is not the main reason that good jobs are becoming harder to find, but people think it is because it is easier to blame someone with a face than amorphous phenomena like globalization and technological innovation. 

Globalization will continue its relentless reshaping of our world. Ever increasingly we will live alongside out-group members. In order to avert riots, to repair the broken immigration system in the United States, to prosper, we must learn to do it better.

Doing it better starts with recognizing a few fundamental truths. Forming groups and favoring members of our group is a part of human nature. That does not mean that human nature is prejudiced. It does mean that we have to put in a little effort to prevent our groupish nature from becoming prejudiced. The best way to do this is to expose ourselves to immigrants. A preponderance of research, and my own experience, confirm that interacting with people who are different from us reduces prejudice.

So, I encourage you to befriend some immigrants – at church, at your children’s school, or volunteer through a library or social-service organization to be an English conversation partner for someone who is learning the language. It is the best way to address the kind of strife that is being felt in Sweden and around the developed world.

I am not saying that we should open all of the world’s borders, but we do need to open the borders of our minds and hearts. We need to recognize that all of the world’s citizens deserve the same security and opportunity that exist in Europe and the United States (though not everyone shares equally in them). We should not begrudge immigrants for pursuing such basic things.

Mariah Levison is a mediator in Minneapolis who specializes in public-policy consensus building, and a Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota. Her work has been published in the Minnesota Journal, MinnPost, and Minnesota Lawyer.


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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 09/06/2013 - 07:03 am.

    Spot-on Diagnosis of Xenophobia

    Mariah Levison hits every nail right on the head. She plainly maps out the reality that remains invisible to nativists and xenophobes: the reality that immigration is hard, and that people don’t do it for a lark.

    There’s even a very good proposal for therapy: Get to know immigrants themselves. I only wish the people who presently fear immigrants could be persuaded to take the time to get to know just a few of them.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/06/2013 - 12:57 pm.

    Well, the group I most closely associate with

    is the group called the “taxpayers.” And guess what? There are members of my group who are also legal immigrants who oppose the so-called “immigration reform” legislation. They kind of resent being labeled “anti-immigrant” or “xenophobes” when all they’re trying to do is defend the rule of law of a sovereign nation, not to mention the national treasury.

    The second group I most closely associate with is the one that met the boat.

    • Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 09/06/2013 - 06:13 pm.

      Sorry, I won’t let this pass.

      I won’t let pass the insinuation that being a “taxpayer” makes you different from immigrants, both with and without documents, who pay taxes. If tax evasion occurs, punish that. Don’t punish workers for working.

      I won’t let pass the insinuation that an immigrant can’t be a xenophobe. The xenophobes have a big advertising budget, and they have spread their irrational fear in nearly every ethnic group.

      I won’t let pass the insinuation that there is some difference in moral quality between an immigrant with documents and an immigrant without them. That’s like the difference between the winners and the losers of a game of musical chairs. We are the ones who choose to ration work permits, so that hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers have no choice but to live in poverty at home or work illegally here.

      I won’t let pass the notion that defending this system of work-permit rationing, detention, and deportation is the same as defending the “rule of law of a sovereign nation.” Laws that make it a crime to work are wrong and should eliminated from among our nation’s laws.

      I won’t let pass the evidence-free notion that immigration depresses our economy or imposes an undue burden upon our government in particular. I do know that foolishly and hatefully choosing to regard undocumented immigrants as enemy invaders, worthy only of detention and deportation, costs us taxpayers two billion dollars a year. (Read Lee Fang’s article in THE NATION online: “How Private Prisons Game the Immigration System,” February 27, 2013.) Maybe the xenophobes choose to ignore this expense because their propaganda is funded by the owners of the private prisons that house thousands of detainees.

      I’m sorry the xenophobes got to you first, Mr. Tester, so that everything I write is likely to fall on deaf ears. But I can’t let their propaganda go unchallenged.

  3. Submitted by Eric Feyder on 09/08/2013 - 10:18 am.

    It’s all semantics.

    I’m part of the group that have nothing against immigrants that come to the U.S. and have chosen to enter the country legally. Those immigrants have demonstrated respect for the established laws of the country. Many in my group have a resentment for the illegals who blatantly disrespect such established laws. While it’s true, many of the illegals that have entered the country, did so with no nefarious purposes or malicious intent. That can’t be said of every illegal immigrant. The author does make a valid point in that immigrants, illegal or otherwise, would not make such a journey if there wasn’t a belief that something better awaited them at the end. To me, what the the point of this article, and that of the immigration debate really boils down to is semantics; and many a Native American would/and still do consider the rest of us an illegal immigrant.

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