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Shutting the Door Behind You: Why are Immigrants Hostile to Immigration?

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A recent Maclean’s article revealed an unexpected reaction among immigrants to the subject of immigration. In 2015, Toronto radio station G98.7 hosted a call-in discussion on the matter. Contrary to the expectations of Andray Domise, the author of the article, many of those who called in were not only anti-immigration, but judging by their accents were immigrants themselves. Not only that, but many exhibited hostile and bigoted attitudes to the Syrian refugees arriving in Canada at the time.

One would think that, if anything, immigrants would be most sympathetic, but this was apparently not the case. Domise wanted to get to the root of this counterintuitive result. Domise’s conclusion was that it had to do with the life experiences of immigrant and first generation groups, as they internalized the outward pressure to assimilate, and the suspicion directed at them for being outsiders.

Perhaps this is part of it, but I do not think it is the main reason. There is one comment that was rather telling. “My son and daughter can’t afford a house in Toronto,” one caller said, “where are you going to put these people?”

We live in a time when jobs are fewer, less comfortable, and lower-paying, and the cost of living, especially housing costs, is outstripping the average person’s ability to earn money. Immigrants tend to be relegated to lower-paying and less pleasant positions in both good times and bad. Unfortunately, these jobs are harder to come by nowadays as a result of automation, outsourcing, and deliberate understaffing by companies looking to cut costs. Born and bred Canadians who are not visible minorities are feeling the pinch too of course, and are having to make do with lower-tier positions that normally go to immigrants, yet they still have a much better chance of winning those few good positions that become available.

Landed immigrants are being pinched from above by multi-generational Canadians who are being frozen out of good careers, and from below by waves of new immigrants coming in behind them, all of whom are competing for the same dwindling supply of entry-level jobs and affordable housing. A study featured on Statistics Canada’s website, released in 2014, revealed that low-income rates rose among immigrants during the 1980s, and ‘90s, rising from 1.4 times above the rates for Canadian-born citizens in 1980 to 2.5 times more in 2000. Thankfully, the gap stopped widening during the 2000s, but still stood at 2.6 times more for immigrants as of 2010. Under those circumstances, it is no wonder that established immigrants, who have so little to gain and to lose, would be most willing to shut the gates behind them.

Using opinion poll statistics to make his case, Domise suggests that these attitudes are a generational phenomenon, and that the descendants of immigrants become more liberal and welcoming over time. Perhaps this is true, but it could also be that what we are seeing is a product of our time, and that in a more prosperous era we would be seeing more positive and inclusive attitudes. Intense competition for scarce resources tends to encourage the toxic “I’ve got mine, the rest can go hang” attitude that, in my opinion, is far too pervasive in our culture. It is a problem that goes beyond the immigrant community and affects all of us. In Canada we have become accustomed to a high standard of living that in many ways is simply not sustainable anymore, and people tend to become resentful and suspicious when they are threatened with losing that lifestyle, or being denied the chance to attain it. Unfortunately, both policymakers and ordinary people turn inward, worrying about their own well-being instead of cooperating to ensure a decent, if not luxurious life for all.

Then again, perhaps Domise and I are both being naïve in our own ways, trying to ascribe logic and reason to the irrational prejudices of what may be merely a vocal minority. Canada prides itself on being a welcoming and inclusive society, and relatively-speaking, we are. Yet no matter one’s cultural attitudes, it is hard to be welcoming toward a fresh competitor getting in line for a job that already has a hundred other applicants, yourself included. When getting that same job means the difference between feeding and putting a roof over yourself and your family or not, empathy becomes a luxury one can ill afford.

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