Sunday, June 5, 2011

'Immigrant' or 'Invasive Species'?

Are Immigrants Bad For The Environment?

A file photo of a Brussels rally in support of immigrant rights (Guy Leboutte)
A file photo of a Brussels rally in support of immigrant rights (Guy Leboutte)
By Juliet Fall
LE TEMPS/Worldcrunch
Foreigners in Switzerland have already been identified as a primary cause of rising crime, increased housing costs, the growing rate of unemployment, and even urban traffic congestion. Now they are being held collectively responsible for the ecological crisis. Switzerland’s Population and Ecology Association (ECOPOP) has just launched a federal referendum aimed at establishing a link between the environment and immigration. Intent on stabilizing the Swiss population, the association believes that limits on immigration can help reduce environmental degradation.

While environmental policies are increasingly thought of as global issues — most notably within the context of climate negotiations — the ECOPOP initiative considers environment to be a local matter for the State to handle, through both a comprehensive birth-control policy and tougher border controls. ECOPOP calls specifically for Switzerland to limit immigration, disclaim international treaties that impede such measures, and designate 10% of international cooperation funding to support family planning abroad.

The alliance between supporters of tougher immigration control and ecology has actually existed in Switzerland since the 1970s. Far-right political leaders such as Britain’s Nick Griffin or France’s Marine Le Pen are now doing the same. Le Pen stated on her website “that environmental feelings can be perfectly addressed without being a supporter of the complete opening of borders or of the right to vote for foreigners.”

The blending of ecology and immigration exists outside of politics as well. One can recall the brutal debates that threatened to tear apart the Sierra Club, one of the oldest and most respected nature conservation organizations in the United States. In 2004, the organization was the target of a fruitless attempt to change its official position through massive recruitment of new members hailing from anti-immigration political movements. Some years later, the executive director Carl Pope called for its members to reject “the virus of hate.”

Both the Swiss initiative and the American case raise the issue of how easily biological and political terminology can be blurred. Conversations about infections, viruses or saturated ecosystems are often framed in language that blends biology with social phenomena. When appropriated by political actors, terms like “invasion” and “infection” can be devilishly effective in mobilizing public opinion. It can work the other way around as well. The natural sciences often use terms loaded with political connotations. Biologists, for example, talk about “biological invasions” or “foreign species pollution.”

When researchers characterize a plant or animal as “invasive,” they are thinking within the framework of a disciplinary paradigm, that of ecology for example. They are engaging in a metaphorical discussion of otherness. Nevertheless, the language resonates – whether intentionally or not, it reinforces the otherness of that which is foreign. Aware of the linguist pitfalls, some biologists have turned to less emotional, less loaded terms such as neophyte (new plant) and neozoaire (new animal).

The example of “foreign” species is not insignificant. There is an eerie similarity between the Swiss blacklist of invasive animal and plant species — drafted by Switzerland as a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity — and the unofficial blacklist of countries whose nationals are automatically denied long-term visas by the Federal Office of Immigration.

The affinity between social metaphors and distrust in that which is foreign plays a role on the level of fear and insecurity. Nostalgia for a lost original purity concerns both humans and non-humans, and plays on the ability of language to transport the meaning beyond the original intention. We must avoid the risks of blurring the line between immigration and the environment. It is worth recalling that in the darkest periods of European history, the classifying of people as “burdensome,” “foreign bodies” or a “threat to society” risked leading to their eventual extermination.
Read the original article in French
photo - Guy Leboutte

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