Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

THE nightclub bouncer approach to immigration is doing us more harm than good. Two families that recently won court orders overturning the refusal of the Department of Home Affairs to allow foreign nationals married to South Africans back into the country won widespread sympathy. And so they should — preventing people living with their families because they were born elsewhere causes needless pain and embarrasses the society. But there is little similar sympathy for hundreds of thousands of citizens of other countries who live here but are subject to legal restriction, endless harassment and violence.

The immigrants for whom the mainstream has no sympathy do not usually live in suburbs. They are from elsewhere in Africa or from Asia and do not look or sound like suburban residents.

We are told repeatedly that "xenophobia" is a problem here. This suggests that the problem is a general fear of foreigners. But the "anti-immigrant" attitudes and the laws that both create and reflect them are selective: they are supposed to allow in those foreigners we want and keep out those who we don’t.

So our law and debate don’t dislike all foreigners — like a nightclub bouncer, they want to let in those who look respectable and keep out those who don’t. Why, then, are the rules applied in ways that hassle middle-class people, which seems set to continue as home affairs has now proudly hired the company that makes life miserable for people who apply for British visas?

If you start labelling some immigrants a threat, you are likely to create the impression that all are, particularly as it isn’t done to admit that you want to keep out only people who aren’t like you. The nightclub bouncer approach ends up hurting everyone.

Immigration laws now are less strict than they were a few years ago — but only if the person seeking to live here is wanted by a formal employer. In theory, the law does not seem to discriminate — people who don’t have a job offer are allowed in if they have skills not available here or want to start a business. But, in practice, this is open to discrimination. Builders from Mozambique or mechanics from Zimbabwe may have skills we need but they can easily be denied legal status on the grounds that we have our own people in these work categories. And who decides what a business is? Activities that are productive but don’t meet the culturally biased standard for a "business" will probably be excluded.

The public debate reflects this bias. Much ire is directed at foreigners who trade in townships and shack settlements, and very little or none at those who occupy professional jobs in the suburbs. Far more anger is directed at people from Africa and Asia than at those from Europe and North America.

This may not be particularly South African. "Anti-immigrant" sentiment is fuelling right-wing parties in much of Europe and North America. And again, the problem may be not a general fear of people from elsewhere as of some people.

In the UK, the "anti-immigrant" UK Independence Party has no problem with hundreds of thousands of white South African or Australian immigrants — some of its candidates for office are whites from SA. The targets are Eastern Europeans, Asians and Africans. In the US, it is taken for granted that hostility to immigrants is really directed at Latinos.

But the fact that our society’s hang-up is shared with others does not make it any less dangerous, for ourselves as well as others. Letting in nice middle-class immigrants and excluding the rest is not only a human rights abuse — it is economic nonsense.

Studies show repeatedly that immigrants are, everywhere, an economic asset. The skills and energies they bring far outweigh the resources they consume. Ironically, most societies that now erect walls to keep foreigners out were built by immigrants. This is so whether or not the new entrants are middle-class and suburban — the immigrants who built societies were neither. They were desperately poor, which is why they worked harder and longer.

Studies of immigrants from elsewhere in Africa here show that, across the board, they are a net gain for the society because they bring more wealth than they consume. Trying to welcome some immigrants only is self-defeating.

First, it usually ends up lumping together those who are wanted with those who aren’t. Second, those who aren’t wanted have skills and energies we need. By trying to exclude them, we are hurting ourselves.

If we are to end not only the immigration absurdities to which middle class people are exposed but also the violence against productive and hard-working immigrants, our law and debate needs to send out a very different message about foreigners. We need to see them as an asset, not a threat, whatever their country of origin.

Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.