America is full up. Or at least that’s the message emanating from the 2020 US presidential election campaign. Immigration, both legal and illegal, is a key political issue in the United States today and no matter who wins the next presidential elections, immigration controls are certain to get tighter. Gone are the days of easy, and often surreptitious, entry into the United States.
The United States might be India’s greatest friend, as President Donald Trump would like us to believe, but when it comes to accepting more immigrants, the lines are drawn.
Immigration has for good reason become a major political issue in the United States. It has also become a most abrasive election issue with both the Republican and Democratic camps raising the decibel on associated rhetoric. With the start of impeachment proceedings against President Trump, matters are only going to get uglier.
While most Americans deep down believe that there is something not quite right about limiting immigration in a country built by immigrants, many also tacitly believe that the huge numbers of outsiders are now becoming a socio-economic drag, even affecting the country’s national character in some ways.
A recent Gallup poll suggested that over 70 per cent of Americans today either want immigration levels to be reduced or kept at its present level. Only about 27 per cent feel it should be increased. The poll also recorded that the percentage of Americans who feel that immigration is the country’s number one problem (at 23 per cent) is the highest in history.
In all fairness, though, America continues to be the world’s most liberal nation when it comes to immigration. In a country like India, it is virtually impossible for someone to become a citizen legally. In this country, economic migrants from Bangladesh, Nepal and other neighbouring countries are looked down upon and majority opinion seems to favour their deportation.
The United States, on the other hand, has the world’s largest population of immigrants, most of them completely legalised citizens. Over a million immigrants are granted citizenship in the US every year. In comparison, 2.4 million outsiders entered the EU in 2017, of whom just 825,000 were granted citizenship.
According to one estimate, as many as 44 million American citizens today are immigrants, constituting almost 14 per cent of the US population. This is a huge number, and no other nation in history has taken in such large numbers of outsiders.
Increasingly, however, a large segment of US voters believe that their country simply cannot take in the hordes of potential immigrants thronging their borders. This group also believes that outsiders are taking their jobs and pose a burden on social security and healthcare services.
President Trump and the Republicans champion the anti-immigrant chorus and before the last election had pledged to crack down on immigration, build a border wall with Mexico and deport millions of undocumented immigrants.
Despite the rhetoric, President Trump has not managed to do much. In 2017, the Trump administration deported about 295,000 illegal immigrants, which constituted the lowest number in more than 10 years. President Barack Obama, in comparison, had evicted as many as three million aliens between 2009 and 2016.
What has horrified American liberals as well as most Democratic leaders is President Trump’s decision to criminalise unauthorised border crossings and the detention of illegal immigrants in concentration camp-like facilities. A number of Democrats have pledged to repeal these laws if elected.
If there is a major political difference within the United States regarding emigration, it is about the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants who are already living and working in that country. The political right would like to evict or deport this vast body of people.
This June, President Trump had tweeted that the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency would “begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States”. He added that “they will be removed as fast as they come in”, but without specifying how exactly this would be done.
The Democrats, on the other hand, are clear about regularising and integrating their illegal immigrant population into mainstream life. This is not just the humane thing to do, but also the most practical. Ridding the country of aliens is a difficult and gruelling task that involves identification, incarceration and ultimate deportation. Few countries have succeeded in doing something like this, and certainly not in this scale.
Moreover, what the American right-wing would not want to admit is that even the poorest of immigrants contribute substantially to the US economy, not just in terms of labour but also in the form of taxes, a large part of which goes towards supporting the country’s ageing native population.
No matter which way the immigration debate in the US ultimately swings, Indians stand to be directly affected by the tightening of US immigration controls. At one time, neighbouring Mexico was the largest source of illegal immigrants, but today research suggests that Asia constitutes the largest and growing source of aliens.
According to a recent study by the Pew Research Centre, India, South Korea, the Philippines and China are the biggest source of aliens in the United States today.
Pew found that between 2007 and 2017, the number of “undocumented immigrants”, or illegal aliens in simpler terms, from India ballooned by over 60 per cent — from 325,000 people to 525,000. Today, Indians are believed to comprise five per cent of the total illegal immigrant population in the United States.
Immigration from India shows no sign of letting up. 2017 immigration statistics show the largest number of immigrants came from India — 126,000 people, followed by 124,000 from Mexico, 121,000 from China and 41,000 from Cuba.
While legal immigration from India is mainly made up of educated, often highly qualified people, the illegal crowd sneaking past the US border controls is largely illiterate or semi-literate. A great percentage of them hail from Punjab for some reason. Entire villages in some parts of India are supported by remittances from immigrants, many of whom have migrated illegally.
Given the political trends prevailing in America, the next generation of educated Indians would do well if they altered their goals from emigrating to a better country to making their own country better. Such an endeavour would make for a much happier world.
The writer is an independent commentator on political and security issues...