Noam Chomsky on the crises of immigration

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Pope Francis captured the essence of the crisis of immigration: “Migrants are not the danger. They are in danger.”

The implication is clear – the so called crisis of immigration is an indication of a bigger moral crisis in the wealthy countries of the world; those societies that have resources to help those who are in severe danger and to mitigate or resolve the circumstances that lie at the roots of their flight.

Reflection on these matters is essential if we are to face the moral crisis honestly and realistically, which is a prerequisite to a humane and constructive response to an enormous human problem that is right before our eyes, and is very likely to become far worse in the near future unless decisive actions are undertaken. And it is instructive, I think, to reach for these reflections, to reach beyond the events, that are before our eyes which are shattering enough. That includes the report in yesterday’s El Pais that more than 4,000 desperate refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean this year, fleeing from misery and violence. Migrants are often in extreme danger as we see every day.

That is not to deny that migrants can sometimes become a serious burden on the society that receives them. The most extreme case is a devastating catastrophe that is rarely considered a crisis of immigration, although it should be. The rise of settler-colonial societies where the migrants arrive with the intention of displacing or exterminating the indigenous population, the most savage form of imperialism, and indeed the foundation of much of global society. The most prominent cases are the world’s richest and most developed countries. We cannot properly use the term crisis of immigration in such cases. That is far too mild.

A better description would be the words of U.S. President John Quincy Adam, the intellectual author of the Doctrine of Manifest Destiny that justified the settler conquest of what is now known as the United States. In his later years he recognized the fate of “that hapless race of native Americans, which we are exterminating with such merciless and perfidious cruelty, [to be] among the heinous sins of this nation, for which I believe God will one day bring [it] to judgement.” In all of the countries of the Anglo-sphere, the offshoots of England, the aftermath for those who survived the onslaught remains severe today and the painful tale is repeated in other parts of the world as well.

Another crisis of immigration, also a foundation of the modern world, is the forced migration of captives to slavery, again not usually described as a crisis of immigration. The practice reached its most extreme and vicious form in the plantation economy of the American South, where under hideous conditions, slaves produced the most important commodity in the world trade throughout the 19th century – cotton – which to an extent, not generally realised, served as the basis for modern advanced economies, particularly those of the United States and England, but other countries as well. Production of cotton by slave labour provided the basis for the development of manufacturing, finance, commerce and retail industries. Contemporary scholarship is now only beginning to portray the implications of the slave system for the modern economy, and not to speak of its role in imperial conquest in North America, India, Egypt and elsewhere. It was also a major factor in the American Revolution, which was fought in part to preserve the institution of slavery, from the growing opposition to it in England.

The history of slavery, much of it just being unearthed by contemporary scholarship, is horrifying and, as in the case of the remnants of the settler-colonial onslaught, the aftermath remains grim today. It should be unnecessary to dwell on the severe moral crisis that history poses for the rich societies or on the moral depravity of the evasion of the terrible history and the unwillingness to attend to the aftermath to the limited extend possible.

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