Orwell on Immigration


I have written extensively over the past year or so about the effects of a seminal Supreme Court decision in Padilla v. Kentucky, which, aside from its constitutional underpinnings, deals directly with another matter of great import: immigration. I recently came across a thoughtful passage from George Orwell — perhaps my favorite writer of all time — in which he offers his thoughts as to the origins of anti-immigrant feelings. It isn’t a particularly novel observation; in fact, the exact opposite might be true. However, it is worth recounting here; if anything, because, as Padilla itself makes clear, immigration continues to be a topic of public interest and also because Orwell continues to impress me, and hopefully others, in his perceptiveness and prescience.

[Orwell begins by recounting a conversation that he had overheard between two relatively well-off Scots in which they attribute a number of Scotland’s problems to the influx of the Poles. Among other things, the Poles are blamed for unemployment; the housing shortage, declining morals, etc. Orwell then proceeds to offer the following thoughts on this discussion:]

One cannot, of course, do very much about this kind of thing. It is the contemporary equivalent of anti-semitism. By 1947, people of the kind I am describing would have caught up with the fact that anti-semitism is discreditable, and so the scapegoat is sought elsewhere. But the race hatred and mass delusions which are part of the pattern of our time might be somewhat less bad in their effects if they were not reinforced by ignorance. If in the years before the war, for instance, the facts about the persecution of Jews in Germany had been better known, the subjective popular feeling against Jews would probably not have been less, but the actual treatment of Jewish refugees might have been better. The refusal to allow refugees in significant numbers into this country would have been branded as disgraceful. The average man would still have felt a grudge against the refugees, but in practice more lives would have been saved.

So also with the Poles. The thing that most depressed me in the above-mentioned conversation was the recurrent phrase, “let them go back to their own country.” If I had said to the two business-men, “Most of these people have no country to go back to,” they would have gaped. Not one of the relevant facts would have been known to them. They would never had heard of the various things that have happened to Poland since 1939, any more than they would have known that the over-population of Britain is a fallacy or that local unemployment can co-exist with a general shortage of labor. I think it is a mistake to give such people the excuse of ignorance. You can’t actually change their feelings, but you can make them understand what they are saying when they demand that homeless refugees shall be driven from our shores, and the knowledge may make them a little less actively malignant.

[UPDATE: I neglected to identify the source of this passage by Orwell; it formed a part of Orwell’s regular column in Tribune, a left-leaning British periodical, and which carried the common title, “As I Please.”  This was from As I Please 70, January 24, 1947]

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