How to counter xenophobia – invest in immigrants the American way

Refugees arriving at the airport in Cologne/Bonn (5, October 2015)
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Refugees arriving at the airport in Cologne/Bonn (5, October 2015)

As Europeans struggle to respond to the tensions between their own growing right-wing, xenophobic parties and new refugee and immigrant populations, there is a great deal to be  learned  from the US immigrant rights movement.

For US immigrant rights advocates, the current presidential campaign has historically high stakes. The Republican Party is running a presidential candidate who launched his campaign by calling Mexicans rapists and whose idea of immigration and asylum policy centers on mass deportations, a border wall to Mexico and the banning of Muslims.

Trump is only the loudest voice in a rising chorus of virulently xenophobic, right-wing populist movements that are shaping Europe as much as the US. The UK Independence Party, the Sweden Democrats, the French Front National, the Polish Law and Justice Party, Hungary’s Jobbik, Austria’s Freedom Party and its Alliance for the Future of Austria, the Danish People’s Party, Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, the People's Party-Our Slovakia, Greece’s Golden Dawn – the expanding list of far-right, venomously xenophobic parties extends to nearly every EU Member State. The Alternative for Germany has successfully capitalized on the arrival of more than a million refugees to spread fear and win seats in local and state governments. The populist rhetoric – a critique of establishment politicians, a virulent defense of the “native” population and its “authentic” cultures, a willingness to exploit the plight of incoming refugees and immigrants for political gains, along with a healthy dose of sexism and racism – is identical on both sides of the Atlantic.

But there is an important difference in the American response. While Trump is among the most notorious and (so far) most successful anti-immigrant populists, he also faces one of the most coordinated and powerful counter campaigns. In contrast to what happens in the EU, it is America’s immigrant organizations that are tackeling Trump and his followers head on.

The immigrant-led response

The National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA) brings together the country’s 37 largest regional immigrant rights organizations in 30 states. Helping immigrants gain citizenship and register to vote has been a core mission of NPNA’s member organizations for decades.

Trump’s rhetoric has spurred a national, coordinated campaign to ensure that immigrants get citizenship in time to vote against him. Over the past months, the NPNA network, along with some of the country’s oldest immigrant rights organizations, has made headlines across the country for achieving a drastic spike in naturalizations and voter registration through its “Stand up to Hate” campaign. According to the Washington Post, naturalizations in heavily immigrant and Latino states like California and Texas have doubled compared to the 2012 election cycle as “More than 80 percent of those [recently] naturalized then register to vote, compared with 60 percent previously.” Although Latinos are often the most visible group in the immigrant movement, intersecting and parallel networks exist to advocate for other immigrant and cultural groups such as Asian Americans and American Muslims.

Organizations like America’s Voice have established themselves as the communications mastermind of the immigrant movement, developing language and messaging strategies and providing training to grassroots efforts across the country. They have shaped the language that mainstream media now use to describe immigration: advocating for terms like “undocumented” over “illegal,” developing the concept of “a path to citizenship,” and emphasizing the need to “keep families together.”

An opportunity for European societies

This network of immigrant-led organizations has become a major force in US politics. At the annual National Immigrant Integration Conference hosted by NPNA last December, all three Democratic presidential candidates attended – a clear signal of the growing importance of the immigrant and minority vote. 

European integration practitioners recently visiting the US were amazed at the strength of US immigrant organizations. Where is this kind of mobilization in Europe? Where are the immigrant and minority rights organizations and their immigrant-led media outlets? Where is the civil society infrastructure to challenge inadequate asylum reforms or to question the persistent rhetoric of the prevailing national cultures? Where are the coordinated immigrant voices to challenge the xenophobic narrative that emerged after the New Year’s Eve attacks in Cologne? Who is offering an alternative discourse to the persistent concern among even the most educated Europeans that investing in strong immigrant organizations will lead to ghettoized, parallel societies?

Many Europeans will explain that the demographics and the histories on the two sides of the Atlantic are different. The US has been a country of immigration for centuries. Without a strong welfare state, civil society organizations and the philanthropic sector are correspondingly stronger in the US and minority populations are much larger and have greater electoral influence. As the Washington Post noted, “this will be the most racially and ethnically diverse election in U.S. history. Nearly a third of eligible voters will be racial minorities, due mostly to growth among Hispanics.” And yet, many EU countries have been a countries of immigration for decades. Today, one in five of Germany’s citizens has a migration background.

Immigrant-led groups have major role to play in Europe

Now, more than ever, most European countries need a strong, immigrant-led sector. It is these organizations that play a critical role both in countering right-wing rhetoric and in facilitating the integration of new immigrant and refugee communities. It is these organizations that have the cultural competency to reach out to newcomers, including the new refugee populations and can help them to navigate the cultural and legal peculiarities of their new home. But it is also these organizations that have a powerful role to play in the public debate on national culture, diversity, immigration and asylum. No asylum reform, no integration law, no major media event like the attacks in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, should pass without the active involvement and immediate response of immigrant-led groups, speaking for themselves and for their communities.

There is plenty of reason to make fun of the Amis in this circus season of an election but, as Europeans struggle to respond to the tensions between their own growing right-wing, xenophobic parties and new refugee and immigrant populations, there is also a great deal to learn from the US immigrant rights movement.

This article is part of our dossier "Crossing borders – refugee and asylum policy in Europe".

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