To Be Absolutely Frank

Here to Stay

Immigrants are a main reason for Europe's tensions -- yet the continent can't do without these newcomers.

By 4.25.02

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Jean-Marie Le Pen's surprise second-place showing in last week's French presidential vote has once again highlighted Western Europe's anxiety over immigration. Across the European Union, political parties with platforms for reducing or eliminating "extracommunitarian" (i.e., non-EU) immigration have been gaining strength.

Such parties get a boost from rising crime rates, linked in many minds to the growing numbers of newcomers. Even immigrants themselves, who tend to live in less-safe neighborhoods, find themselves voting for supposedly xenophobic candidates -- as has happened in the Netherlands, where Pim Fortuyn has drawn a respectable share of Muslim support.

It's clearly unfair to brand concern about safety as "racist," even if the alleged offenders are disproportionately non-white and non-Christian. And it's only natural for traditional, relatively homogenous societies to wonder how they can absorb millions from lands with different languages, religions and customs.

The worries can easily spring from a "progressive" mindset. How, for example, is a left-wing British social worker supposed to counsel a young Pakistani woman raised to consider herself subordinate to men? Assuming the social worker is honest with herself, she will have to admit that the values of feminism and multiculturalism have collided. The "clash of cultures" is not merely a figment of right-wing imagination.

Yet Europe cannot avoid this clash by stemming or stopping immigration. Europe needs immigrants, and underneath all the rhetoric of zero-tolerance and "send them home," everybody knows it. Europe needs immigrants to clean its streets and office buildings, to man its factories, to cook its food.

The politically palatable solution is to let them in but pretend otherwise. That way, the crops get picked, the buildings get built, the children and aged of the middle class get cared for. Everybody's happy except the immigrants themselves, but they're officially invisible, and whenever they cause trouble, you can throw them out.

The cost of such hypocrisy is greater than a loss of respect for the law. Kurdish peasants spend everything they have to ride on packed smugglers' boats, knowing that the trip could end in drowning. Albanian girls come hoping for humble but decent jobs, and end up being forced, under threat of violence, to prostitute themselves.

These people are less than second-class citizens, yet they're not the only ones who lose from this arrangement. The first-class citizens who work in the above-ground economy are having fewer and fewer children. Who's going to pay their pensions?

Italy, where I live, and where the government is proposing tougher immigration laws, has a fertility rate of 1.18 children per woman -- the lowest rate in recorded history. Retirement comes at age 64 for men and 59 for women. Their respective life expectancies are 74 and 82. As they say: you do the math.

The question is not whether the outsiders will keep coming, but what impact their growing presence will have. Most European nations don't have a traditional ideology of assimilation. France is one that does, yet that hasn't spared it inter-ethnic tension. The American ideal of the melting pot, out of fashion in the States, has virtually no resonance here.

So what's the alternative to thinking about immigration in terms of invasion? Maybe nothing. But invasions aren't necessarily a bad thing. Over the millennia, they've made Europe -- and America, and just about every other place I can think of -- what they are today. Compared to most of its predecessors, the current invasion of Europe is a peaceful and orderly one. Let's hope the self-interest of its better-off citizens keeps it that way.

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About the Author

Francis X. Rocca ia an American writer in Rome, Italy.