By Frank Viviano
New America Media
Arizona, for Americans, has come to symbolize anti-immigrant hysteria codified into law. Under its highly controversial terms, anyone who simply “appears” to be foreign can be stopped by police and ordered to prove that they are U.S. citizens or legal residents.
In Europe, Arizona arrived a generation ago — with hardly a ripple of organized protest.
Since the 1990s, heavily armed officers of the Compagnie Républicaine de Sécurité (CRS), France’s elite national riot troops, have been deployed at major transfer stations on Paris commuter lines and other public gathering places, waylaying hundreds of black African, Arab and Asian travelers every day in search of “sans papiers” — undocumented immigrants.
“Not a single week passes without a cop asking me for my I.D.,” a West Africa-born Parisian says. “I have to build time for interrogation into my work schedule.”
In 2011, counterparts to the CRS patrol the streets of most European capitals, against a backdrop of escalating violence and surging anti-immigrant political parties.
Athens was rocked by three days of riots in mid-May, touched off by rumors that a “dark-skinned foreigner” had fatally mugged a Greek. More than 100 Africans and Asians were attacked by the rioters, and scores of immigrant-owned shops were looted.
In legislative elections on April 18, voters in Finland gave the “True Finns,” an extremist anti-immigrant party, one-fourth of their nation’s parliamentary seats. Similar parties have achieved prominence in such other liberal bastions as Denmark, Sweden and Holland, demanding harsh measures against “illegal intruders” and fortified borders to keep them out.
None of this will sound unfamiliar to Americans, who will hear echoes of the Tea Party in Europe’s xenophobic rhetoric. Yet the similarities are far from exact.
Europe is Not America
It means something quite specific, rooted in the collective DNA and thousands of years of history, to be French or German or Greek. In this respect, the European experience with substantial immigration, which dates back to the 1970s, turns the American controversy on its head.
Viewed strictly from a cultural perspective, Europeans have more in common with Arizona Latinos than they do with the white legislators who pushed for that law.
Arizona has been populated by Native Americans for more than ten millennia and by Hispanics since the 16th century. It was part of Mexico until 1848, and remained predominantly Hispanic in culture and population long after it became a U.S. state a century ago. Only in the two last decades has massive migration from the northern rustbelt given Arizona a slim (and almost certainly temporary) white majority – the voting bloc behind the draconian bill that Governor Jan Brewer signed into law last year.
Like Hispanics across the U.S. Southwest, indigenous Europeans have seen their towns and cities overwhelmed by waves of recent arrivals who share neither their culture nor their longstanding attachment to the land.
The principal language spoken at home today in huge stretches of northern Paris and its adjacent suburbs is Arabic. On the city’s south side it is Chinese, in several dialects used by a quarter million residents from China and Southeast Asia. More than 10 million residents of France are immigrants or their children.
Almost 4 million Turks now live in Germany, some 250,000 of them in the capital, Berlin. Immigrants and their progeny in Rotterdam, the second largest urban center in the Netherlands and Europe’s busiest port, will comprise more than half the population by 2020. Already, the city has an immigrant mayor in Ahmed Aboutaleb, the son of a Moroccan imam.
The vast majority of Europe’s newcomers are Muslim – some 16-20 million people – and thus living reminders of the longest continuing conflict in world history. In cultural terms, Western Europe and Islam have been at odds, often bitterly, for 1,400 years.
This doesn’t mean that more than a tiny handful of Muslim immigrants are potential terrorists, or that more than a similarly tiny number of white Europeans are violent racists. It does mean that ancient tensions still run high on both sides of the cultural divide, and are no longer buffered by natural borders. The differences in beliefs, customs and attitudes are acute, and painfully evident when they involve the people next door rather than distant strangers across the sea or beyond a mountain chain.
Europe, after the cataclysmic horrors of Fascism and Stalinism, has constructed liberal, secular societies that are the envy of the modern world. By contrast, many of its recent immigrants are deeply traditional and ill-at-ease with secular mores.
“Multiculturalism,” anti-immigrant European politicians declare, “is an American concept. It won’t work here.”
My Plumber’s Conundrum
The question is whether Europe really has a choice, notwithstanding the implications for its venerable cultures and contemporary fears.
It comes down to numbers, to blunt statistics and the phenomenon I think of as “my plumber’s conundrum.” The plumber to whom I refer is one of the most successful businessmen in the small town where I live in central Italy. Almost to a person, his apprentices and sub-contractors are immigrants. “I can’t find a young Italian to hire,” he says. “That’s the whole story.”
It’s the same story told by plumbers, electricians, bricklayers, masons and countless other tradespeople and industrialists across Italy and the continent.
In 1950, when Western Europe began its climb out of the ruins of World War II, its birth rate was almost 20 children per 1,000 inhabitants. In 2010, it was just over 10. Italy’s birthrate, at 9.1, was the second lowest among 227 countries surveyed by the United Nations IN 2010.
The current birthrates in West and North Africa, two of the main sources of immigrants to Europe, are respectively 38.5 and 23.
Put those sets of numbers together and you begin to understand my plumber’s workforce – and more, the crisis that Europe faces if it refuses to adjust to the challenges of a world in motion.
The liberal paradise of secular Western Europe, with its enviable health care, schools, transit systems and pension benefits, is a product of affluence, of economies fueled by a constant infusion of young workers and consumers. That entire structure totters on a cliff today, not because of a Muslim immigration wave but because of Europe’s own plummeting fertility and soaring retirement population.
In 1950, 10 percent of Western Europe was above the age of 65. The proportion will soon approach 30 percent, and not decline for the rest of the 21st century.
Who will support all those retirees? Who will keep Europe’s economies rolling? There is only one feasible answer at present: More immigration, rather than less. Multiculturalism, in some form, whatever the cultural cost.