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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

An Asylee Wonders, Is Sander-Style Democracy Bad for Migrants?

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Ali Anisi Tehrani is an asylee from Iran. He raised some of these issue in a conversation we had one day over lunch, and I asked whether he might put his thoughts into a blog post. He was kind enough to do so--

“I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people,” Senator Sanders says. He’s not alone. Many Americans envy the Nordic countries, with their affordable education, health care for all, and subsidized child care.

Feeling the Spurn? Ali Tehrani worries about social democracy and immigrants.

While these countries are wonderful places to visit, as a political refugee who has spent time in Sweden, I fear that maybe this Nordic Valhalla would not be so heavenly for immigrants after all. Whatever it means for politicians like Bernie Sanders and his supporters, my experience tells me that in the long run, the Scandinavian model would be a disaster for immigrants and for people who plan to immigrate to the United States.


I have spent almost equal time in Sweden and the U.S. I enjoyed Swedish collective generosity and I studied there for free. The Swedes were even kind enough to send me to the U.S. as an exchange student with full medical insurance! An immigrant friend of mine had three surgeries there and spent weeks in hospitals. He paid very little. In fact, everyone in Sweden has health care and the deductible for medical expenses and medicine was only about $100. In a way, everything was perfect!


So what the heck am I doing in Washington, DC? Why did I leave the Nordic utopia and move to a country with no social benefits (even after receiving asylum, I was not eligible for short-term medical insurance in Virginia because I earned more than $150 per month)? Perhaps things in Sweden are not as they seem.


I lived in a small town in Sweden, not super immigrant-friendly. Everyone was nice and polite, and I never had any encounter that could be called explicitly racist or hateful. But I always had the sense that I was unwelcome. That I was a sort-of black sheep (or perhaps a brown one). I can’t say I would feel any different if I were in their shoes: Why should I work in order to pay for some foreigner’s education and benefits? Maybe as a result of this sentiment, the law in Sweden changed in 2011, and free education for foreign students was abolished.


The current situation in Sweden (and across Europe) is now quite disturbing. We are in the midst of the worst human catastrophe since World War II, and Sweden plans to reject up to 80,000 people who applied for asylum in the country last year; as many as half will be forced to leave against their will. Denmark, Sweden’s neighbor to the south, recently passed laws allowing the authorities to seize any assets exceeding $1,450 from asylum-seekers in order to help pay for the migrants’ subsistence (items of “sentimental value,” such as wedding rings, are exempt).


Many Swedes, even people who knew me personally and knew that I could not return to my native Iran, had a naive and sincere question: “So… when do you go back?” I never took it personally because I knew they did not ask me to be mean; they asked because they were really interested in the answer. During my three years in the U.S., no one has asked me this question. Literally, not one person! I have been welcomed here by many people; I don’t recall being welcomed in Sweden in this way. Maybe it’s just a lucky coincidence. Maybe.


If we take a look at some numbers, we might see one reason why immigrants are (or are not) wanted.


In 2014, the unemployment rate for native-born Swedes was about 5.1%; the foreign-born unemployment rate was 15.5%. It was about the same in Denmark: 5.4% for native-born Danes and almost 12% for immigrants. In Finland, the unemployment rates were 7.5% and 16.3% for native and non-native born people. That makes sense: Foreign-born workers may not know the language or culture, they have limited networks, and they may not have the education or skills required to succeed.


There's a different story in the U.S. In 2014, there were 25.7 million foreign-born people in the labor force, comprising 16.5% of all workers. The unemployment rate for foreign-born persons in the United States was 5.6%, while the jobless rate for native-born Americans was 6.3%. What!? The unemployment rate for foreigners is lower than for native-born citizens? How can this be?


To me, the difference is that no one in the United States sees me as an extra person taking their social welfare benefits. Instead, they see me as another taxpayer pulling my own weight. There is opportunity here that does not exist in other countries. Of course, social and cultural norms are different in homogeneous societies like Sweden and Denmark, but I still believe that the most influential factor explaining how immigrants in different societies are treated is economic. Because of this, I worry that a Bernie Sander-style social democracy might make life in the United States more difficult, and less welcoming, for foreign-born residents like me.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.

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