Commentary. The main damage to the working class doesn’t come from migratory flows of people, but rather stems from international flows of capital.

Irrational fear of immigrants and the real economic threat

If we were asked to name the most powerful political sentiment of our time, in spite of ourselves, we would probably have to mention the collective terror aroused by immigrants. This fear has spread to such an extent that it has resulted in one of the most visible political changes of this century: a progressive clampdown on legal immigration.

The Demig Index, compiled by the International Migration Institute in Amsterdam, reports ever-increasing restrictions in migration policies. Since 2008, as many as 32 of the 36 OECD countries have tightened legal immigration procedures: Italy is among them, along with France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States and others.

And still, what has already been done doesn’t seem to be enough. The reactionary right insists on bureaucratic constraints, barbed-wire walls and naval blockades. And even among the so-called liberal parties there is a growing shift toward anti-immigration policies. If liberals and reactionaries will reach an understanding on European governance in June, it will certainly be around an even more ferocious fight against the incoming foreigner. In turn, for the left, this is the thorniest issue, the one on which it is easiest to lose support. One of the reasons is that the fear of immigrants has also made inroads among native-born workers.

Immigrants are seen as an “economic” threat, which supposedly increases the mass of the unemployed, pushes for worse working conditions and lower wages, creates upward pressure on rents and so on. These theories now seem so well-established that there is no shortage of self-styled “leftist” leaders ready to incorporate them into their programs.

But are things really that way? The prevailing scientific research says no. In the publications by Nobel laureate David Card and other experts on the subject, the thesis that immigration damages the living conditions of native-born workers is refuted again and again. The data show that migrants mainly go where there is a strong need for labor on the part of businesses, which explains why their arrival does not turn out to be correlated with a growth in unemployment. This also means that migrants mostly go where the pressure on wages is not downward, but upward, which helps us understand why the idea that immigration reduces wages doesn’t have adequate empirical evidence either. Even George Borjas, the economist who was praised by Donald Trump for defending the wall between the US and Mexico, is citing results that are far from unambiguous, many of which signal that immigration may be correlated with growth and increased well-being for native workers.

In short, if we look at the data, we find that migrant rejection policies, justified with the intention of defending the economic conditions of natives, are not supported by scientific evidence.

Instead, very different evidence is clearly emerging from the research in the field. It shows that the main damage to the working class doesn’t come from migratory flows of people, but rather stems from international flows of capital. The real trouble, that is, comes from the fact that the current freedom of movement of capital allows the great wealth holders to move their money from one place in the world to another at will, in constant pursuit of high profits, low wages and new opportunities for labor exploitation.

So much for the “threat of migration.” The real problem, as always, lies on the side of capital and its incursions. Instead of playing catch-up with the right-wingers on stopping migrants, the leftists could revive the alternative cause of stopping international capital movements. At this point, however, this option is not even being talked about. The right-wingers continue to prosper by waving the specter of the mystifying bogeyman of immigration, while the conspiracy of silence on the real disasters caused by capital remains intact.

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