July 6, 2003

Everyone loses in refugee sham

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Bonded labour is alive and well in Ireland. Amazingly, our bizarre system of immigration binds the immigrant to his employer.An immigrant with a work visa cannot change job without forfeiting his visa.Thereafter he is illegal, operating in the black market, outside the law, liable to arrest and deportation. How mad is that?

The immigrant’s life is entirely dependent on his relationship with his boss – not unlike the slave to his master in theWest Indies years ago.

If the immigrant gets a better offer, he has to move jobs illegally. Obviously his original employers can threaten to shop him to the authorities for the crime of ambition.

In many cases, the threat of getting his visa taken away from him is enough to force compliance.Why is this? Why do we restrict the movement of our foreign workers?

Not only is this inhumane but it is also financially delinquent. If we want our labour force to be competitive, flexible and fair, immigrants should be free men, not 21st century slaves who are caught in a bureaucratic maze which legitimises bonded labour.

If we want immigrants to settle into our society, the bonded labour approach is entirely counter-productive.

For example, did you know that an immigrant on a work permit can’t bring his family with him? Yet what we need are settled immigrants with their families rather than single men and women at the margins of society.

How have we arrived at this situation? And who is to blame? One would have thought that the social partners, with all their talk about civil society, would have allowed a much freer system where legal immigrants could come and go as they please, change jobs and move around.

Does this not make sense from a humane point of view? The immigrant should have the freedom to associate freely with his family, be free to travel and free to settle in whatever part of the country he pleases.

He should be free to gain qualifications and progress ambitiously like everyone else. In this way, immigrants will settle quicker, more permanently and be more likely to call their sons Sean Og.

This is also in our interest. Would there have been a tragic death this week in Crumlin as a result of insufficient paediatric nursing care if immigrants were allowed to bring their families with them? Probably not. Immigrant nurses now look after our very young and our very old – our children and our parents and grandparents.

For example, there are 4,800 Filipina nurses working in Ireland today. Without them, the health system would be a complete shambles, but at least 500 are expected to leave for Canada and the US this year, largely to be with their families. We have close to 1,000 nursing vacancies to be filled in our health boards.

These positions could be filled immediately by importing nurses and their families from the Philippines. The Americans have been doing this for years on the basis of an immigrant points system based on qualifications.

There would obviously be very few shortages of skilled labour if we decide to adopt best international practice in the area of immigration.

What is the best international practice when it comes to immigration? Sheer numbers point to the laissezfaire American approach. So why have our partnership friends not followed the American example on immigration?

Maybe it is because they can’t bring themselves to agree with the American view that some people are more equal than others.

Broadly speaking, our American cousins contend that income inequality is a reflection of hard work and enterprise. Whereas many Irish people believe that inequality is a great evil, Americans believe that inequality is fair. This statement may upset many people, but it is the crux of the successful American system.

In the US, if you are an immigrant you can’t expect to have the same income as a native by right. However, if you work hard, your kids will have a much better chance of going to college than if you stayed at home.

The contract is very simple. When you arrive in the US, you might have to start at the bottom but you can work your way up. The logic of this approach preserves social cohesion in the face of wave after wave of mass migration, because immigrants are not seen as an immediate threat to the working population.

This approach also explains the extraordinary social mobility that character is es US society. The unencumbered system allows immigrants to be seen as exemplary citizens, rather than victims who need our pity and alms.

Without pity, there is little resentment. More importantly, if we do not give immigrants social welfare or the minimum wage by right, the populist charge of “foreign scroungers” can never be made concrete. Once the natives see the foreigners getting handouts, the cycle of resentment begins.

Therefore, the US system allows freer immigrants to integrate quickly with their families in tow. Integration does not have to mean assimilation. Indeed much of the evidence from the various hyphenated-Americans suggests that America is less of a melting pot than a patchwork quilt.

Many in Ireland worry about the downsides of freedom.What happens if immigrants are exploited? Who will protect them?

The answer is pretty simple. If a Filipina nurse earns $100 a month in Manila versus $1200 per month here, who is being exploited? The key acid test to the fairness of our system is whether people want to come here. We should know, emigration is the most damning indictment of any society. In contrast, immigration is an extraordinary compliment to us.

So what is it about some of our social engineers at the top table that they prefer to patronise immigrants rather than listen? Why do they not trust the judgment of people leaving home all over the world tonight to travel to Europe and Ireland?

Immigrants are not stupid. They have sophisticated networks and instantaneous information about the state of play. How else can we explain the brisk business at discount international call shops all over the country? (If you want to know where our immigrants come from, just go to any call shop and see where the greatest discounts are being offered. This week it is Georgia and Pakistan.)

When I was one of the more than 150,000 illegal Irish in the US, most of my calls home consisted of advice to mates about how to get in, how to avoid immigration and the available jobs in the bars of New York that paid under the table.

In short, immigrants know the score and the risks. They make up their own minds and they choose to come here.

Obviously it goes against our national self-interest and identity to have an open door policy.Only the most extreme cosmopolitan could argue with that. However, the system we have is an appalling combination of the four Ps: piety,protectionism,populism and patronisation.

Piety, because we continue this refugee charade that everyone knows is a piss-take. Thousands of migrants spoof they are refugees fleeing oppression because they know it is the only way of getting in.

Protectionism, because at the core of the rationing of visas and linking immigrants to specific jobs is the gnawing worry that, if we let these folks in here, they might end up working harder than us and showing us up.

Populism, because by ghettoising foreigners in an illegal limbo we reinforce the scrounging outsider image.

Finally, patronisation, because we believe we know what’s good for them rather than allowing them to freely associate,work and travel.

In the years ahead, immigration will be the single most important issue facing Ireland.Worldwide,there are 15 million people on the move every day looking for a new home. Equally, as Irish people will now not do many menial but essential jobs, we have a need for foreign workers.

The census already tells us that close to 9 per cent of the population are foreign-born. By 2006, forecasts suggest that 25 per cent of Dublin’s population between the canals will be foreigners. What is the best way to proceed?

We should pick and choose the type of immigrant we want and when they arrive here they should be free to do as they please. Our present system of sham refugee claims and bonded labour for those with work visas is the worst deal for them and us.