Sunday, May 18, 2014

The politics of class and migration

For the many professional Indians that live abroad, the struggles for a green card are integral to the journey of economic progress, of making a life abroad.

Making a life for oneself abroad provides many opportunities and most importantly, a ladder to succeed economically.

This is the premise of many an immigrant dream, the ultimate rendition of the IIT-IIM fantasy.

I myself have pursued this dream, and understand the anxieties that surround the processes of securing a visa, getting a green card, securing permanent residence, and ultimately may be, securing a citizenship. When going through the reams of paperwork, it certainly is overwhelming to fill up document after document.

The anxiety around the immigration process occupies the dinner table topic of many an immigrant conversation, sharing in stories of an unfair immigration system.

In the sharing of the anxieties, professional immigrants often share their lack of understanding of what seems to them to be a racist system, one that does not acknowledge their many contributions to the economy. They share stories of being treated unfairly, often noting how regressive this or that immigration policy is. Dinner table conversations in get togethers over weekend share stories of horror at visa interviews, immigration check points, and green card interviews. The humiliation and pain is meant to offer a reminder of the unfairness of a racist system. The narrative of race quickly turns to one of feeling dejected at the unfairness of the treatment, just because of one's color of skin.

The same community of professional immigrants however have very different attitudes when it comes to questions of immigration of the underclasses. They advocate for conservative immigration policies when it comes to the poor, the working classes, and the laborers. For instance, many an Indian professional expresses utter disbelief at being mistaken as a Hispanic by some "stupid White American." The disdain here is two fold, both toward the "uneducated White" and toward the "Hispanic underclass" (who by implication is of a lower status).

When asked to explain this inconsistency in their attitude, the immigrant professionals are quick to point out that they are different. After all, they are needed in the US or UK economy, and the economies have supposedly made much of their achievements because of this class. Their professional knowledge and technical contribution form the bulwark of progress and economic growth of the US and UK.

So why would any country not want them? And if they don't, it must because of their racist attitudes toward certain immigrant communities.

Responses such as this speak of an implicit sense of entitlement, of wanting to be treated differently. For the professional migrating classes, immigration is an entitlement that should be extended because of the value addition made by these classes. The red carpet should be roled out by grateful governments and the bureaucratic red tapes should be removed.

The expectations however are very different when it comes to the underclasses. More barriers should be set up, border policies tightened, and greater surveillance added to prevent the "illegal" movement of these underclasses.

Discourses of immigration then operate at two different levels, highlighting different rules of the game and different expectations for different social classes. Most receiving economies (such as US and the UK) play out to this entitlement to entice the professional classes of expatriates.

The entitled expatriate expects the royal treatment and resents having to go through rules and regulations, quick to point to accusations of racism at having been made to go through rules or having been denied a visa or having been denied entry. The goal of immigration laws therefore is seen as being driven toward enticing this class, minimizing the necessary steps and processes.

Such however is not the case for the migrating underclasses.

For the underclasses, immigration laws work to erase, exploit, and render hidden the basic rights of labourers whose hard work serves as the fundamental basis of developing economies. The devaluing of this work and the simultaneeous overvaluing of the knowledge worker lies at the heart of this differential treatment in immigration policies. This differential valuing of different kinds of work also explains the different attitudes toward different audiences of immigration policies.

Class therefore lies at the heart of the current global politics of immigration and the discourses that surround it. 

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