Immigrants in the Crosshairs: Mixed Messages


In California, Republican candidates for governor are battling over who’s tougher on immigration. In Britain where national elections will take place on May 6, Conservatives are bashing the Labour Party for what it falsely describes as an “open-door immigration policy.” The French government has set deportation quotas and is seeking to toughen its immigration rules. In Italy, Hungary, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Greece and Switzerland, right wing parties and politicians are chalking up political gains by pandering to anti-immigrant sentiment. Even in developing countries such as India, Pakistan, Yemen and Sri Lanka, governments have stepped up deportations and toughed the rules on foreign workers.

In some countries, migrants are loudly speaking out. A March 21 demonstration in Washington, D.C. drew tens of thousands of immigrants and their supporters. In Italy, thousands of people in different cities rallied for migrants rights on March 1. But more quietly, and often behind the scenes, a potent force–businesses that rely on a mobile workforce are also making the case for migrant labor. So, even as fear, anxiety, resentment, xenophobia, and racism fuel waves of anti-immigrant populism around the globe, countervailing pressures come not only from migrants themselves but from corporate sponsors dependent on immigrant labor.

“Restricting the number of foreign nationals in individual companies would hamper activities,” Som Mittal, president of India’s major IT trade group told the country’s Economic Times after the country instituted visa restrictions. The migrant crackdowns in India may come as a surprise, since the nation is better known for exporting workers. But recent prosperity has led India in some ways to act more like an industrial than a developing country. As India attracted capital from abroad, the number of foreigners living in India rose considerably, leading to resentment and social friction. India’s Ministry of Home Affairs reported that in 2008, the number of registered foreigners totaled 398,836, a more than threefold increase in two years.

Things came to a head last May after a riot in which Indian villagers reportedly attacked workers brought in from China by a Chinese company to work on construction of a steel plant. In November, after examining the issue, India’s Outlook magazine reported that “hordes of unskilled/semi-skilled imports from China are taking jobs from the unemployed Indian. One estimate put their total number–skilled and unskilled together–at around 25,000.” By the end of the year, the estimated number of Chinese workers had risen to 40,000, and, in reaction, the Indian government instituted a new policy to clamp down on foreigners. Under recently-adopted regulations, Indian will issue employment visas to only one percent of the total number of workers in a particular project. It also imposed an upper limit of 20 workers for projects.

Not surprisingly, businesses don’t like the new rules and are appealing to the Indian government to change them. The drive is led by India’s $60 billion IT industry, which, like other businesses, prefers to act as if nation states and political boundaries did not exist.

“We need to get expats to help us understand the complexity of businesses,” said TV Mohandas Pai head of human resources at Bangalore-based Infosys Technologies, one of the largest IT companies in the world. “But instead of helping, the [Indian] government has tightened the visa rules.”

Loosening visa and immigration rules is a cause that transnational firms have long championed, and one that Pai has articulated for many years. His company, Infosys, has 16 offices throughout the United States, and is one of America’s major employers of high tech, temporary workers with H-1B visas. Last year, even as the U.S. economy was tanking and out-of-work American programmers were looking for jobs, Infosys received authorization from the U.S. Department of Labor to import 10,069 H-1B workers. To Pai, as with other business executives in firms that depend on migrant labor, the state of the economy is irrelevant. The goal is worker mobility, since ease of movement provides transnational companies with flexibility. Pai makes the same case in the United States as he makes in India. “I think the H-1B program has made America more competitive because it has gotten the best of class people to come to America to work,” Pai told a television interviewer this week. “H1-B will bring jobs to America and H-1B will not take away jobs from America,” he said. “This program needs to be expanded.”

The pro-migrant stance is hardly limited to Indian firms. Industry coalitions in the United States such as ImmigrationWorks USA and EWIC, the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, which is run out of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are also hard at work lobbying for business-friendly immigration rules. It’s an old and familiar story. Just as European industrialists during the industrial revolution lobbied to free serfs from the land so peasants could move from the countryside to cities to work in factories, modern day businesses also thrive on a workforce that is portable, ready, and replaceable. That’s why the fixation on the legal status of immigrants is misplaced. Truly comprehensive immigration reform needs to be international and needs to account for the driving forces behind immigration.


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