How History Shapes Western Attitudes Toward Immigration

4 MINS READNov 21, 2014 | 00:26 GMT

Immigration was the topic of discussion on both sides of the Atlantic today. As Americans prepared for the unveiling of U.S. President Barack Obama's new plan to deal with the issue, British voters in the county constituency of Rochester and Strood voted in a by-election that the anti-immigrant U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) was expected to win. Meanwhile, media reports suggested that UKIP's Swedish counterpart, the Sweden Democrats, was on the verge of toppling the country's fragile sitting government by voting against its budget.

Each of these three countries is trying to manage its relationship with immigration. But each also has a unique historical relationship with newcomers that brings with it different causes of friction. 

The United States is a country that is essentially populated by immigrants. After the discovery of the New World, Europeans flocked to settle in North America in great waves, often fleeing poverty and religious persecution to start anew. The "American Dream" developed, in which newcomers were welcomed and could become Americans in their own right. To enable this integration, all that was needed from these newcomers was total commitment. They had to be willing to leave their old identities behind and wholeheartedly embrace their new surroundings. A fierce patriotism sprung up to aid this transformation; words such as "un-American" came to mean "bad," and the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance is still recited in American schools on a daily basis. The mechanisms of patriotism essentially turned the United States into a citizen factory that has taken in outsiders and turned them into Americans for centuries.

The United Kingdom, by contrast, has had a largely reciprocal relationship with its immigrants. During 300 years of empire, British representatives arrived in India, Africa and the Caribbean and expropriated local human and natural resources, turning them and putting them to use in whichever way best served British interests. In the decades since its empire collapsed, Britain has found that this flow has been mostly reversed, as waves of Caribbean, Indian and African immigrants came to settle at the center of the former web. This trend can also be seen in France, the other great imperial power.  

Sweden, meanwhile, is experiencing the effects of its liberal principles. Scandinavian countries are famously expansive in their social spending and staunch supporters of human rights. The former aspect makes them highly appealing as a destination for poor outsiders looking to improve their lives, while the latter makes them an obvious destination for refugees from war-torn countries. In 2013, Sweden received the highest number of asylum applications in the world. 

A Unique Set of Challenges

Because of these historical differences, each country now faces a distinct set of problems that it must wrestle with. In the United States, the historical immigration model is by no means obsolete, though the number of newcomers is much more tightly regulated today. Immigrants to the United States are still, for the most part, successfully integrated into society and welcomed as Americans, regardless of their birthplace.

In the United Kingdom, the waves of immigration from the former empire have now been largely absorbed and replaced since the country's accession into the European Union with waves of Eastern Europeans. This immigration shift has created growing resentment and a desire to staunch the flow of newcomers, making a departure from Europe a simple and seemingly obvious solution that is gaining traction. In Sweden, negativity is more squarely aimed at Muslim immigrants, who are accused of failing to integrate deeply into Swedish society.

The irony of all this is that time is firmly on the immigrants' side. All Western countries are facing looming demographic crises (though the United States is in a less urgent position), as aging populations conspire with low fertility rates to create a growing number of pensioners supported by dwindling working populations. In coming decades, these countries will focus less on constructing barriers to keep immigrants out and more on offering enticements to attract willing hands and minds into their workforce. 

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