Switzerland’s Immigration Referendum Is No Better Than America’s Muslim Ban

Photo Courtesy of Reuters

An anti-referendum poster in Zurich, Switzerland originally stating, “Unchecked naturalization? No to an easier path to citizenship.” Vandalized to read “Unchecked incitement? No — Yes to an easier path to citizenship.”

Are you angry about President Trump’s P’00 recent executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority states for 90 days?  Are you outraged over the White House’s plans for “extreme vetting” of these immigrants?  You have every right to be.  The hastily arranged order not only panicked legitimate visa holders and their families, but also  tarnished  America’s image as a  refuge from violence and instability.  Yes, the seven countries listed are the same ones on which President Obama once imposed a similar ban as “countries of concern.”  However, he spoke of extra checks on people from failed states; his successor seeks to increase scrutiny towards Muslims.  The distinction is important. Particularly for controversial policies like this executive order, it’s often useful to contrast what happens in the U.S. to events elsewhere.

Take Switzerland’s recent immigration referendum, which approved the acceleration of the process of citizenship for third generation residents.  Immigration and citizenship are different matters, but they share much of the same basic spirit regarding welcoming foreigners into society.  Curiously, there is an drastic divergence between how Switzerland’s referendum and the U.S.’s ban have been received. 

With a majority of 60%, the Swiss voted “yes” to relax the process for third-generation immigrants to become citizens. No, this referendum was not Switzerland granting birthright citizenship to all babies born on its soil. Rather, it was streamlining the application process for people who: (1) are under the age of 25 and born in Switzerland, (2) went to school in Switzerland, (3) have parents born in Switzerland and grandparents who moved to Switzerland, (4) speak one of the nation’s three languages, (5) can pass national and local tests on Swiss cultural values, and (6) are not already dependent on state welfare. It’s pretty absurd that far right politicians would oppose any loosening of these stringent standards. However, it’s also ridiculous for Americans to protest a far less restrictive proposal for tightening our own checks on persons from places without functioning governments or with official hostility toward Americans.  At any rate, it’s a little misguided for Switzerland to be congratulated for its liberalism. 

The strangest part of the Swiss citizenship process is the tests designed to prove how well the immigrants have assimilated  in Swiss society. Town councils can ask candidates to do anything from distinguishing among local cheeses or testing their skiing abilities. The New York Times effusively praises the referendum as “going against the recent tide of right-wing populism and anti-immigrant sentiment in much of Western Europe.” This gushing praise  ignores the fact that the “Yes” vote was just 60% for a policy that is still extremely restrictive and applies to only about 24,000 people.  Can you imagine the uproar if the Trump administration demanded a “cultural values” test for citizenship applicants? In the case of this referendum, the media focused on a defeat for far right Swiss politicians who suggested relaxing regulations would invite increased Muslim immigration.  The reality, however, is that a relatively thin majority of Swiss people found it in their hearts to simplify a citizenship process which is still incredibly restrictive.  The Muslim issue actually isn’t very relevant here; 80% of those affected by the referendum are young people of Italian and Balkans origin.  Switzerland did stage a vote on giving automatic citizenship to third generation residents back in 2014, and voters soundly rejected it.

The “No” campaign consisted of fear-mongering about the allegiances of unborn grandchildren of immigrants, making the 60% “Yes” vote actually quite shockingly narrow.  Ultimately, this close margin may be the true significance of the referendum.  If 40% of Swiss people can’t accept the grandchildren of Italians as their equals, Europe has a serious immigration backlash problem. Undeniably, there is an undercurrent in the anti-Trump movement that supports unrestricted access to residency in the U.S. and path to citizenship.  There was something more to all the airport protests and social media clamor than the government’s hassling of immigrants with valid visas. For at least some participants, it was an objection to any standards at all for entry and citizenship.  Eventually, we can debate that idea as a country.  But for now, let’s try to accurately understand what happens elsewhere in the world.

One Comment

  1. Stephen Williams says:

    I’m not mad at all, it’s a GREAT thing Trump has done / is doing. Look at Britain and France, and don’t be stupid.

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