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Not All Immigrant Politicians Think Alike — About Immigration

Migrant associations and activists are saying there are not enough politicians of migrant origin in the new German Bundestag. But are such politicians guaranteed to support policies that benefit migrants? There are prominent examples that suggest otherwise.

Not All Immigrant Politicians Think Alike — About Immigration

Danish Minister for Immigration and Integration Mattias Tesfaye

Rainer Haubrich

BERLIN — No sooner than the twentieth German Bundestag had been elected in September, activists were examining how diverse its members were. The result: compared to wider German society, women and people of migrant origin — either those who immigrated themselves or who have at least one parent not born in Germany — are underrepresented. For the third time in a row, the number of members of parliament of migrant origin has risen, but it still stands at only 11%, whereas in Germany as a whole, 25% of people come from a migrant background.


Migrant associations and the general public seem convinced that politicians of migrant origin have a special empathy towards minorities and migrants, due to their own experiences of being foreign and facing discrimination, and that they would therefore automatically adopt a “progressive” stance on the topic of immigration, that they would naturally be advocates for migrants.

And yet, this is actually a false assumption.

Kamala Harris' hard line

That is clear from a quick look at the prominent immigrant politicians from the right-wing Alternative for Germany party: Petr Bystron was born in Olmütz in communist former Czechoslovakia, came to Germany with his parents at the age of 16 and was granted political asylum. His colleagues Markus Frohnmaier and Joana Cotar both moved from Romania to Germany. Has that experience made them more sympathetic to migrants?

The most high-profile example that proves politicians of migrant origin are not automatically advocates for migrants is Kamala Harris, the first female Vice President of the United States, a member of the Democratic Party. Her Jamaican father moved to the U.S. as a student, as did her mother, an Indian Tamil.

Do not come!

Joe Biden tasked Harris with solving the problem of migration from Central America to the U.S. What would she say to all those who wanted to move to the richer north? You can do it, just like my parents did?

No. On her first foreign visit as Vice President, Harris went to Guatemala, and her choice of words sent a stark message: “Do not come!” she told the people of Central America. She said that entering the U.S. illegally was not only extremely dangerous, but also would not be successful.

Because people would simply be sent back to their country of origin. The U.S. would do everything in its power to enforce its laws and protect its borders. Harris was not speaking as a politician of migrant origin, but as Vice President of the United States, who must first and foremost protect the interests and stability of her own country.

Priti Patel targets smugglers

It’s a similar story in the UK, with Home Secretary Priti Patel. The Conservative Party politician’s parents moved to Britain from India in the 1960s. She has taken a hard-line approach to refugees and asylum seekers, especially those who illegally cross the Channel from France, sending in the military to intercept them.

Recently she has called for social media platforms to take down videos by those who have made the crossing illegally, claiming they “glorify” the act and that people smugglers use them to advertise their services. On Patel’s recommendation, the House of Commons passed a drastic amendment to immigration law, which would introduce life sentences for people smugglers.

Her Cabinet colleague, Health Minister Sajid Javid, is one of five sons of Pakistani immigrants and has spoken many times about how he was called a “Paki” at school. As Home Secretary under Theresa May he proposed measures that aimed to reduce the number of unskilled immigrants to the UK, as well as to arrest asylum seekers who had successfully crossed the Channel and reject their application.

Following the Rotherham sex abuse scandal, he called for an inquiry into why the perpetrators were disproportionately men of Pakistani origin, saying that there needed to be an “open debate” and that perpetrators who had dual citizenship should have their British passports revoked.

UK Home Secretary Priti Patel during a visit to the Neasden Temple in London with Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Andrew Parsons/Avalon/ZUMA

Son of Eritrean refugee

Some of those initiatives would have the support of Danish Minister for Immigration and Integration Mattias Tesfaye – although he is a Social Democrat. The son of an Eritrean refugee father and a Danish mother, he trained as a mason and was formerly a communist. He has played a decisive role in shaping the Danish government’s highly restrictive immigration policy.

Tesfaye says that not controlling immigration would “undermine solidarity in society and pose an economic and cultural danger.” He is critical of the fact that the Muslim community is too often represented by extremists. “Denmark doesn’t need to adjust to Islam, Islam must adjust to Denmark.”

Tesfaye is following in the footsteps of another notable center left leader in the EU: Ahmed Aboutaleb, who has been Mayor of Rotterdam since 2008. The son of an imam, he was born in Morocco, is a Muslim and was named “Best Mayor in the World 2021” by London think thank City Mayors Foundation

Not speaking as a Muslim immigrant

After the deadly Islamist attack on film director Theo van Gogh, Aboutaleb didn’t follow migrant associations in warning the public first and foremost against a backlash against moderate Muslims. He said, “Anyone who doesn’t share the values of an open society would do well to leave.”

Politicians have a duty to the whole of society.

After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, he said to his fellow Muslims, “If you don’t want freedom, for heaven’s sake, pack your bags and go.” He was not speaking as a Muslim immigrant but as a liberal democrat.

Kamala Harris, Priti Patel, Sajid Javid, Mattias Tesfaye, Ahmed Aboutaleb – they all clearly show that the calls for more politicians of migrant origin and debates about identity politics and diversity are based on a false assumption.

Politicians should not be advocates for a specific social or ethnic group. They have a duty to the whole of society, and to represent the interests of their city, province or country. Their political stance should be the main focus, and ideally, their background should be nothing more than a footnote.

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