It has ever been thus. My grandparents and great-grandparents were part of a mass migration from Europe to North America, masses of people hoping to find religious freedom and economic opportunity.
In the first half of the 20th Century, millions of African-Americans moved from the southern United States to the north, which might as well have been a different country at the time, creating a sea-change in US history.
Indeed, the United States and Canada were both founded by such seekers, first called colonists, then pioneers, later immigrants. (Leaving aside, for the present, the millions who were brought to the US by force, and the millions already there who were massacred or displaced.)
Since its founding, the US has never been particularly welcoming to immigrants, each immigrant group, now settled, trying to bar the next one from "their" country. But at various times in the country's history, the need for cheap labour shaped a more tolerant immigration policy.
Right now, if all the illegal immigrants in the US suddenly disappeared - as so many Americans seem to want - the entire economy would shut down. Not a meal would be prepared in a restaurant. Not a room cleaned in an office or hotel. Not a blade of grass would be mowed. Professionals couldn't go to work because they'd have no one to watch their children. You get the picture.
Vast populations the world over are trying to move from impoverished, resource-poor and repressive lands, to any place else. Any place they imagine they might be free, and not hungry. Many Americans think the whole world is trying to get into the US. Of course that's ridiculous. Much of the world is trying to get anywhere.
It can't be easy in the best of times, but right now, it's sheer hell. Anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise in Canada and Europe, and raging almost everywhere else. Conditions are very bad - everywhere - for illegal immigrants right now. Only it's worse where they come from.
As thousands of immigrants to South Africa piled onto one-way buses home to escape widening anti-immigrant violence, civil rights groups in Texas deplored a new initiative they charge endangers the lives of immigrants and their families.
The new procedure would place U.S. Border Patrol agents at hurricane evacuation sites in the Rio Grande Valley to check the documents of those boarding buses, with the aim of ferreting out illegal immigrants. Those who can't produce citizenship papers would be put on separate buses, bound for deportation.
"This is a shocking and dangerous initiative, which will undercut the authorities' efforts to keep everyone safe during a crisis," said Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), an immigrants rights organization based in Washington, DC.
Karen K. Narasaki, president and executive cirector of the Asian American Justice Center, called the plan "unconscionable," since it may discourage immigrants from seeking protection during emergencies.
If immigrants fear evacuation and remain in place, the plan will endanger immigrant communities, as well as placing an additional burden on local agencies charged with evacuation, rescue, and relief operations, Narasaki added.
John Trasvina, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, pointed out that when emergencies strike many people don't have time to sort through their documents and bring them along. The Texas plan means that many U.S. citizens are likely to experience unwarranted harassment, he said.
Marguia announced that the National Council of La Raza has written to Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff demanding that the new initiative be suspended immediately.
Coincidentally, the United Nations' special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance, DouDou Diene, is currently on a U.S. fact-finding mission, although Texas is not on his itinerary. Diene's visit is being welcomed by civil rights groups around the country; a report should be completed by early 2009.
Xenophobia, defined by Webster's dictionary as "hatred of foreigners," is said to be behind the escalating attacks on Zimbabweans, Malawians, Mozambicans, Pakistanis and other foreigners in South Africa, along with the impact of sharp price rises for food and fuel.
Tensions over the presence of large numbers of foreign immigrants, which have simmered in the past few years and occasionally resulted in violence, boiled over last week, leading to at least 42 deaths when armed mobs attacked residents of immigrant neighborhoods and looted foreign-owned stories in Johannesburg.
The violence spread to Cape Town and Durban Thursday; at least one immigrant, a Somali, was killed.
Not unlike the United States, South Africans complain that immigrants deprive local citizens of jobs and absorb precious public resources.
A South African intelligence official Friday accused pro-apartheid elements of stirring up the anti-immigrant violence, suggesting a renewal of the pre-1994 alliance between far-right whites and Zulu workers to discredit the ruling African National Congress.
From the US:
Hundreds of legal and illegal immigrants in Arizona are being sent back to their home countries, sometimes against their will, for medical treatment because they lack insurance.
In some cases, the FBI and police, responding to allegations of kidnapping, have been called in to halt such forcible removals, according to patients' lawyers. In one recent case, a sick baby who is a U.S. citizen born to an illegal immigrant was being transferred by helicopter to a waiting air ambulance for a flight to a hospital in Mexico when Tucson police intervened and brought the child back to the hospital.
The forcible removals are the result of federal and state law mandating that only U.S. citizens and legal residents are eligible for Medicaid. As a result, state hospitals are pressured to transport noncitizens, even if they're legally in the U.S., at the hospitals' expense, back to their home countries, at a cost of up to $100,000.
The alarming scenario has come to light in recent weeks with the dramatic case of Sonia Iscoa Del Cid, a house cleaner in the country legally under temporary protected status, who woke up from a coma last week only to realize that she was going to be forced back to her native Honduras because she lacked insurance for long-term care. The case galvanized the immigrant community in Phoenix.
On May 9, hours away from being flown to a small hospital in Honduras, where Del Cid no longer has any family or friends except for an elderly father, her lawyer filed a temporary restraining order preventing the move. Family and friends raised money through car washes, and received significant financial assistance from dozens of trial lawyers in Arizona, to pay the $20,000 bond ordered by a local judge.
Groups like No One Is Illegal (Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, UK) offer a different vision for the future.
No One Is Illegal (NOII) UK challenges the ideology of immigration controls and campaigns for their total abolition. We oppose controls in principle and reject any idea there can be "fair" or "just" or "reasonable" or "non racist" controls. We make no distinction between "economic migrants" and "refugees", between the "legal" and the "illegal". These are political categories invented by politicians. We campaign to break down these categories and support free movement for all and unity between all.
First, we must share the bounty of what we have, and welcome contributions from every human.
But the entire undeveloped world moving to the developed world is obviously not possible or practical. So until we view the world as one community and all people as humans - not identified by some accident of geography or birth - and address poverty on a global scale, these desperate attempts at immigration will continue.
We need all societies to be open to immigration. But in the long term, we need all human populations to be properly sustained.