Pity the Poor Immigrant

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Anti-Fascist Protest in Banska


Banska Bystrica     Traveling across Slovakia and listening to my guide, I recalled the contradictions of Bob Dylan’s song, “I pity the poor immigrant,” where he is both sympathetic to the plight of immigrants and suspicious of them.



I pity the poor immigrant
Whose strength is spent in vain
Whose heaven is like ironsides
Whose tears are like rain
Who eats but is not satisfied
Who hears but does not see
Who falls in love with wealth itself
And turns his back on me

I pity the poor immigrant
Who tramples through the mud
Who fills his mouth with laughing
And who builds his town with blood
Whose visions in the final end
Must shatter like the glass
I pity the poor immigrant

I asked my new friend how the Slovakian policy had evolved towards accepting their share of immigrant refugees from Syria and the Middle East.  Initially, as the Guardian had reported, “Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania opposed agreeing to the relocation scheme for asylum seekers in 2015, but were outvoted. Although generally opposed, Poland eventually voted with the majority.”  The European Union, responding to the complaints from Greece and Italy where many immigrants had traveled, had set a quota eventually.  The refusal of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to accept any level of the resettlement quota has led to the European Union initiating legal action against these countries.  My colleague had told me the economy was strong in Slovakia and listed the number of auto plants that were in various stages of development in the country and the concerns that Slovakia didn’t have enough labor to fill the needs there and in fact had been hiring thousands of Romanians and Bulgarians to work there.

His was a complicated answer involving bizarre politics, where the President had not been publicly defiant, but in practice had only accepted a ridiculously small number, perhaps 60, and then stopped.  My friend told this story in a complicated and convoluted way, much the same way that Americans embarrassingly describe the antics of President Trump around accepting immigrants and refugees now.  At first, he said it was not a problem, but as I pressed on, based on what I had been reading in recent years, he told more, including the political story, I just mentioned.  By the end of the conversation, he conceded that immigration was a major issue.

It is obviously a deeply one as well, and clearly racialized, unless I’m missing something “in translation.”  As he talked about what he called “white Slovakians” and the difficult integration situation in schools with the Roma population, who by default were being defined as non-white or “other,” it seemed that this was likely the same cultural and political commitment to homogeneity that was erecting barriers to Middle-Eastern, Arabic speaking immigrants, even internalized by progressives who had worked in refugee settlement and favored their admission to Slovakia.

Studies indicate that only 1% of refugees are ever able to return to their home countries, demanding less pity “for the poor immigrants” and more justice.  All of this makes Eastern Europe and its faux populism seem like the South in the 1950s, and that’s not a good thing.