Voting with Their Feet

WALTER TRUETT ANDERSON

December 13, 1992|By WALTER TRUETT ANDERSON

The most potent political force shaping the civilization of the future may well be one that has no place in any ideology: the sheer movement of people from one place to another. It is changing the face of the world, rendering old boundaries and policies obsolete, and laying the foundation for a "new world order" quite unlike anything foreseen by any political leader or theorist -- a boundary-less world in which people live where they choose.

Brunson McKinley of the State Department's Bureau for Refugee Programs, speaking at a recent conference, predicted that migration will present "a major policy dilemma for the next century." He called for a whole new international legal framework for dealing with migration, and for "the nations of the North to find ways to accommodate more strangers in our midst rather than seeking to exclude them at our borders."

At the very least, creating such a framework will mean going beyond the rather skimpy protections of "political refugees" that are now recognized by the international community. At the most, it will mean a major overhaul of the legal traditions by which most nations grant citizenship, and perhaps a whole new concept of human rights.

Growing migration poses a new and disturbing kind of question to the political order: If we can accept free trade as a global ideal, why not free movement? Such a concept of freedom is still perhaps decades away from being widely accepted. But in the meanwhile, millions of people are making it a reality, voting with their feet for a world in which anybody can live anywhere.

And, as the ranks of the migrants swell, angry opposition to them -- and to their cause -- arises from opposite ends of the political spectrum: environmentalists on the left and racists on the right.

Many environmental groups, correctly identifying population as a factor in ecological deterioration, see immigration control as a means of controlling it. Among Green parties and radical environmentalists, the doctrine of "bioregionalism" -- the idea that people everywhere ought to stay put in their local ecosystems -- has become a virtual article of faith, as passionately held by them as the idea of racial purity by xenophobic groups on the right.

Germany's violent anti-foreigner movement is currently the most visible reaction from the right, but wherever there is large-scale migration, organized xenophobia follows in the form of "national culture" political parties.

These movements are not about to go away, because migration shows no signs of lessening. Although nobody has complete figures on how many people are relocating, there is every reason to believe that we are in the midst of the greatest migration in all of human history: millions of people in motion about the globe. Rich people and poor people, young and old, skilled professionals and illiterate laborers.

Mr. McKinley identifies four causes of migration -- which he identifies as "major, irreversible global trends that will characterize the history of the next century." These are: population growth, the development of new technologies, the liberalization of political regimes and the increasing interconnection of the world economy.

Nations and international organizations have some policies and programs to deal with migrants -- particularly those identified as refugees -- but the mechanisms lag far behind the massive global movement. Many countries -- Germany among them -- still operate according to "jus sanguinus," citizenship by birth and ethnic heritage, rather than the American principle of "jus solis," which makes citizenship a matter of residing in a country and abiding by its laws. These concepts will never last out the 21st century.

The pressure to create international rights of migration and choice of citizenship will inevitably build. As it does, we can expect ever more powerful opposition -- both from those who see migration as a threat to the environment, and from those who see it as a threat to their national cultures.

Within the next few years it promises to become a major world issue -- something else to trouble the sleep of those who hoped that the end of the Cold War would bring an end to global conflict.

Walter Truett Anderson is the author of "Reality Isn't What It Used to Be" and "To Govern Evolution: Further Adventures of the Political Animal." He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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