A Lesson from the Danes on Immigration

Portrait caricatureDenmark is in the news again because of its purported hostility to immigrants. Brooke Harrington, a sociology professor at Dartmouth, published an op ed in the New York Times in December, with the inflammatory title “I Almost Lost My Career Because I Had the Wrong Passport,” in which she claimed she was nearly carted off to a Danish prison for giving invited guest lectures to the Danish parliament. It appears Danes have tightened up the immigration laws so swiftly recently that even the parliament was unaware it had become illegal for academics from outside the European Union to give guest lectures.

Harrington describes “cowering in the middle of [her] kitchen with [her] 7-year-old son, hoping that the two police officers pounding on the door of [her] Copenhagen apartment would not see [them].”

That detail is somewhat sensationalistic in that Danish police are famously civil and Danish prisons the envy of the world, as Harrington would know as she, like myself, lived in Denmark for eight years. The sensationalism served the purpose of the article, however, because the purpose was to draw an analogy between Denmark and the United States, and to point out how ultimately self-destructive are anti-immigrant policies. Harrington asserts, by way of illustration, that the negative publicity generated by her ordeal was likely the reason Denmark lost its bid to be the new home of the European Medicines Agency, an office of the EU that tests pharmaceuticals.

There are a number of problems, however, with the analogy Harrington draws between Denmark and the U.S. First, while it’s true that Denmark has become less welcoming to immigrants in recent years, the reasons behind this are far more complex than Harrington’s article suggests. The first, and most obvious reason, is that Denmark takes care of it immigrants in ways the U.S. does not. Immigrants benefit from the Danish social-welfare system just as do actual citizens. Denmark is not nearly so wealthy a country as the U.S., however. There is a limit to the number of people the Danes can take care of.

Unlike the United States, Denmark has few jobs for immigrants who have not yet mastered the native language. In fact, there are a limited number of jobs, period in a country of fewer than six million people with an unemployment rate of over 5%. Hence immigrants do not have the same positive role in the Danish economy that they have in the U.S. economy. Yet despite this, Danes have continued to welcome immigrants into their country, and to feed, clothe, and educate them.

“Nearly everyone,” Harrington admits, “from the prime minister who warned in an op-ed about overzealous immigration policy to government officials who tweeted about my case to the Danish police officer who read the charges against me over the phone, expressed regret about the absurdity of the prosecution.” Denmark also swiftly changed the law and dropped all charges against Harrington.

Danes appreciate the respects in which foreigners can enhance Danish culture. Denmark is a very small country, a fact of which every Dane is keenly aware. Danes are eager for the knowledge and experience that foreigners can bring to their culture and to the economy. What most Americans, including apparently Harrington, don’t realize, however, is that Danes are fiercely proud of their culture, a culture that the creeping contagion of globalization has long been eroding. When I moved to Denmark in 1990, nearly every shop, from department stores to grocery stores, was closed from early Saturday afternoon until Monday morning. Weekends, in Danish culture, were for family and friends. Florists were among the few shops that were open on the weekends because flowers were a traditional hostess gift.

Danes have, or at least had, a very easy-going lifestyle. They play, arguably, as much as they work and believe, probably correctly, that that is healthy. They even have federally enforced vacations that are paid for by payroll deductions. A small amount of money is deducted from each paycheck. Sometime early in the year, one receives a form from the government where one is required to record the dates one’s planned vacation. And then, like clockwork, several days before one’s vacation is scheduled to start, a check arrives in the amount that was deducted from one’s salary. This helps to ensure, they believe, that people will actually take a vacation, a practice they feel is absolutely essential to one’s general well being.

Things began to change, however, when 7-Elleven first appeared in Denmark back in the 1990s. They were open longer than other stores. Closing laws gradually changed, so now, if you run out of half and half on Saturday afternoon, you don’t have to make your way across town to the grocery store in the main train station, you can just go down the street.

Copenhagen used to be so peaceful and quiet on the weekends. That has changed. Many other things have changed as well, of course. After Denmark joined the European Union, Danes saw their autonomy gradually eroded as they were forced to bring their laws into line with those of the other EU countries whether they wanted to or not.

Danes are a proud people, with a culture they have reason to be proud of. And yet it is slipping through their fingers. I remember the first time I saw a foreigner speaking fluent Danish on a bus. This is a magnificent country, I thought then to myself. Danes took in foreigners and made them their own. Back then, nearly all the foreigners I encountered in Denmark, with the exception of Americans, spoke fluent Danish. Danish was really the only language one heard in public.

That isn’t true anymore. Denmark is afraid of becoming a multi-ethnic society because they fear their culture can’t sustain it. That is, they fear Danish culture will not continue to exist alongside other cultures but that it will simply be supplanted, eventually, by these other cultures. That may seem an irrational fear. Nearly every country is larger than Denmark, however, and one of the defining characteristics of the Danish psyche is an awareness of just how small Denmark is.

The situation in the U.S. is very different from the situation in Denmark. We don’t have a national culture in the same sense that the Danes do. We were a multi-ethnic society almost from the beginning and that is something of which we are justifiably proud.

We do share something with the Danes, however, and that is a gradual, but apparently relentless diminution in the quality of our lives and an erosion of our autonomy. If you want to see people behave badly, then make them feel threatened. History has tried to teach us that lesson over and over again and we refuse to learn in.

Liberals can sling all the mud they want at people they charge are bigots because they want to close the national doors to foreigners. If you want people to open their doors, though, you have to make sure there’s warmth inside to spare.

(An earlier version of this article appeared in the December 6, 2019 issue of the online political journal CounterPunch.)

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