Sisyphus’ Borders

It is popular to talk about the idea that the controversy surrounding immigration has reached unprecedented levels, that the world is becoming unsustainably polarized. A resurgent populist right, swinging dangerously across the spectrum into a clash with a radical left that is swiftly gaining popularity – this is an increasingly familiar story, a pattern that has gripped us as it has made its way across Europe and America in 2016 and 2017. Immigration has been a driving force of this phenomenon.

In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front put up a formidable fight in last year’s election, pushing the center-left and center-right out of the first round. It ran on a message of drastically reducing the level of immigration into one of Europe’s most multicultural societies. Against the backdrop of a massive influx of refugees and migrants, this clearly proved a popular message among voters.

Elsewhere, Alternative for Germany, which holds a distinctly sectarian-tinged line against refugees and immigrants at large, entered parliament for the first time in last year’s election. Its Netherlands-based ideological sibling, the Party for Freedom, gave a major scare to the governing center-right government in national elections last year, despite the various hate-speech charges surrounding Geert Wilders, its silver-maned leader. And perhaps most infamously, the United States elected a president who was explicitly anti-immigration, promising a ‘big, beautiful wall’ on the Mexican border, and the voters of Britain chose to leave the European Union, based partly on a fear of large-scale migration from Eastern European countries.

If one looks at the history, however, this is not something new. Migration, reactions, and counter-reactions have been a constant – and noisy – presence, regardless of the temporal or societal context where they appear. It was fifty years ago that Enoch Powell, a Conservative MP in Britain, give his famous speech criticizing mass immigration, warning that, as Virgil did, he saw ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’. Today the language he used appears repugnant, and indeed many were disgusted even then. The fact remains, still, that the Conservatives won a surprise victory in the next general election, and a large part of that can be attributed to Powell’s willingness to speak on what he perceived as the largest threat to Britain. Since then, Britain’s immigration laws have only grown tighter, although the suddenly-very plausible prospect of a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour victory in the next election may change that.

The first aggressive migration-related move in America was when Herbert Hoover clamped down on immigration during the Great Depression. Twenty years later, quotas were reformed, only for more laws to be passed in the decade following. The 1990s saw increased immigration caps, changing dramatically as the country moved into the 21st century. This pattern has continued under Mr. Trump’s presidency and is unlikely to change.

These are just two examples, but changes in migration policy have been constant and will remain so, shifting along with governments and global events. Politics has been described as a pendulum, with philosophy and policy constantly swinging across the spectrum. Lawmakers working to reform immigration may feel that a more appropriate analogy might be that of Sisyphus, who was condemned to roll a huge boulder up a hill, only for it to roll down again. But as history as shown, evolving attitudes in this field are nothing new. The noise on television screens will keep going up – and down.

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