Trump is not an isolated phenomenon. His hard stance on immigration, one of the main tenets of his long campaign, echoes a larger anti-immigration movement around the world. Patrick Weil, a Visiting Professor of Law and senior research fellow at the French National Research Center in the University of Paris, compares the divisive issues in the United States with those in France.
He started by noting how the marginalization of minorities, including immigrants, is a structural problem in both the United States and in Europe. This marginalization is a result of “citizens seeing each other only in a legal sense without a feeling of connection.” In other words, national disunity has caused the increasing dehumanization of minority groups.
The irony is not lost on me. National unity is oftentimes the exact quality people are trying to protect by limiting immigration. The support for more stringent immigration policies is often based on a “us vs. them” mentality in a world of scarcity – scarcity of resources, such as jobs, but also a kind of ideological scarcity where too many different cultures will result in national disunity. To many, these scarce resources must be protected, even at the cost of excluding others. Refugees and other migrants that enter a country, whether legally or illegally, are often considered a threat to a national identity whose characteristics are often obscure even to those who advocate for it. People hope to preserve a national identity by limiting immigration, but the very act of limiting immigration reveals deep insecurities about national cohesion.
Weil then remarked on the important role geography plays in how the U.S. and France approach immigration issues. Before World War II, U.S. immigration policy had the luxury of being sheltered by two oceans. In a way, he says, the U.S. was an island because most of the immigrants came by boat, and ports like Ellis Island were much easier to control than vast land borders. During World War II, this changed as migrants from Mexico crossed the border to fill in jobs that had been left by soldiers. In Europe, on the other hand, it was always “impossible to control the border,” leading to the semi-open borders system of the European Union. To Weil, Trump’s infamous wall signals his desire to “reconstruct the U.S. as an island that is isolated from the rest of the world.” The professor also wryly noted that the going backwards in time simply “doesn’t work.”
He then turned his attention to France. Why does France not take in more refugees? “We are all Trumps,” Weil retorted. He went on to explain the fearful public sentiment due to terrorist attacks in France and the psychological difficulty of welcoming migrants from a country where “the killers have been.” He stressed that to solve the problem of terrorism, more needs to be done rather than just arresting suspects. Killing can only be decreased if the root causes of the attraction to terrorism are addressed.
Before problems can be solved, they must first be identified. Weil considered the reasons that cause people to commit heinous acts of terror. Similar to the beginning of the talk when he mentions lacking a “feeling of connection,” here he talked about lacking compassion. How do we develop this connection or compassion? In Weil’s view, the most important thing that is missing today in both the U.S. and in France is a national narrative. He went on to say that the narrative should be based on historical truth and honesty. The real story is one of progress (equality under the law) despite the dark moments of our past and present. Only through understanding our shared history can we move forward.