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Wanted: Fewer Immigrants

10 May 2011

A headline in Bergens Tidende (The Bergen Times) caught my eye this morning: “The NHO (Head Organization for Trade) Wants Fewer Immigrants.” I read the short article while both the coffee and my blood pressure were brewing, reminding myself that it is always a bad idea to read something incensing before coffee.

I have heard three main arguments worldwide against immigration: immigrants cause an increase in crime, immigrants take away our jobs, and /or  immigrants don’t work enough and hungrily munch away on our social systems. This article takes the latter line of argument. The sub-headline rants:

“Immigrants threaten the welfare state and cost too much. They work for too short a time and then throw themselves at social security, and they are too unproductive.”

Those lazy Africans. Those job-taking Eastern Europeans, those . . . uh-oh. But wait. I am that immigrant. I am the immigrant who came to Norway because I couldn’t find work in my home country. The one who only worked part-time, temporary positions before throwing myself at the welfare system to receive dagpenger – day money – which, by the way, is about 73% per month of my former income. And hey – it’s fabulous to not work and still receive money, and I can keep on doing this for up to two full years! But do I want to work? Yes. Do I want use my skills to contribute to society? Yes. Do I want to be like everyone else, going to work in the morning and spending my money at Ikea on the weekends for a new kitchen? YES!

But I am too unproductive. Or so it would seem. Because despite the countless job applications I have filled out, my PhD from the University of Toronto and my Masters from the University of Oxford, I still can’t get a permanent job in this country. In fact, I haven’t even made the shortlists.

“Do you think it’s my foreign sounding name?” I asked a friend.



“Yes. If twenty Norwegians apply for the same job, why would they give it to you?”

Unable to find a job in my field of expertise, I find myself unqualified for much else, mainly because of my stumbling Norwegian. In my head I hear someone shouting, “Learn the friggin’ language!” just as I heard those same words hurled at Cubans when we lived in Miami. But I have not had time for more Norwegian courses because I was working while trying to find permanent work and taking care of two kids while spending hours each evening to translate both homework assignments and letters from the bank or immigration authorities before sleepily trying to find where one gets a melted vacuum cleaner still under warranty repaired, and then, exhausted, navigating the website of the Norwegian health system in the hopes of finding a family psychiatrist to help with lowering stress levels caused by the aforementioned factors!

Yet as I write I feel as though I am throwing words to the wind (as good as that throwing feels), because what is at issue here is not whether we immigrants work too much or too little or commit too much crime, but rather that we change the place where you live. We don’t threaten trade or culture or, God forbid, the tradition of eating lutefisk … We threaten the concept of Norway. Or the concept of Indiana, where I grew up (which, I’m told, is so full of Mexicans now I wouldn’t even recognize it.)

I am currently reading a book by John McLeod called Postcolonial London: Rewriting the Metropolis which begins with the idea that our “problem” with immigrants is that we see them as foreigners and not as citizens (questions of illegal immigration aside, because both legal and illegal immigrants change our demographic and cultural makeup). McLeod cites Julian Wolfreys’ Writing London (1998: 4) which posits that London ‘is not a place as such’ but that it “takes place.” London as a place is defined by Buckingham Palace, Covent Gardens, the Tower of London, Beefeaters and double-decker buses. It is also the former seat of the world’s largest ever Empire. But coffeehouses are replacing tea shops and kebab vans are pushing out fish-and-chip stands. What is taking place in London? Is it being over-run by immigrants? Or is London becoming a space and not only a place in which many cultures can perform their lifestyles. In this view, London becomes an enormous theatrical production – a spectacle, a menagerie of people performing a variety of colourful and meaningful events.

Everyone groaned when Sarah Palin suggested that rural America was the “real America” because she failed to accept America as a nation that has always been in a state of becoming – a giant imaginative performance in which a multiplicity of cultures and ethnicities participate to create this country called America. The BT article similarly highlighted a view of Norway as a static nation, one always searching for a past, concretized definition of itself – a Norway of yesterday, in which everyone shared the same culture, spoke the same language, and had blond hair and blue eyes, failing to realize that this Norway never really existed, forgetting that today’s Norway is was enabled by the Portuguese and Spanish sailors who came in the Middle Ages, the German Hansa merchants who set up shop in Bryggen and trade routes throughout Europe, not to mention the indigenous Sami who have lived in Norway longer than anyone.

In 1782 J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur published an essay entitled Letters from an American Farmer. At times he is overly optimistic about his new country, and is undoubtedly Eurocentric in his views, but his description of early America is one in which immigrants are treated as citizens and not foreigners, as those actively engaged in creating a new life for all:

“What then is the American, this new man? . . . I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present fours sons have now four wives of different nations. He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced . . .” (The Norton Anthology to American Literature: 312).

Instead of crying out for a different nation — one with, say, fewer immigrants — are we able to start imagining it differently? To get rid of prejudices and old ways of thought that tell us that immigrants are bad and to begin embracing everyone as participating in the performance of a nation.

(I feel a bit preachy after having written this, but my blood pressure has at least returned to normal. As always, I welcome your comments.)

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Norse permalink
    10 May 2011 14:18

    It is easy to blame some kind of xenophobia when finding a job is difficult. It is not always right. There are more subtle socioeconomic reasons.

    Protections from unfair dismissal is fairly strong in Norway. Wages are high. And that means that employers risk much more when hiring. Being stuck with someone who didn’t quite work out is a much more realistic possibility in Norway than the USA. And so, employers hire much more conservativly, and references become far more important than in other countries.

    My name is among the most Norwegian there are, but I got my degrees from a university outside of Norway. When I returned, finding employement was unspekably difficult. No-one wanted to take a chance on the strange degree that did not totally fit the Norwegian degree areas. And I did not have the network someone educated in Norway gets, friends, colleagues and professors.

    I did what Norwegians do in this situation -applied for temporary positions that opens due to maternity and paternity leave. Since they are time limited positions with no real possibility of extensions, employers are much more willing to take a chance on you. And I applied in remote locations where the majority does not want to live and work.

    Once you get a few good references, things become a lot easier. A problem for immigrants in Norway is that many arrive due to a romantic connection with an established Norwegian and do not have the opportunity to work for a year or two in a remote village in the North.

    Also, it is important to remember that your references are more valuable in this environment, but employers are still no more enthusiastic about calling a reference in the US, than your average US employer is about calling one in France. So local ones are a big hurdle to overcome.

    • 14 May 2011 22:10

      SPOT on Norse.. 😉 I have never had to go through an interview process like I did in Norway. 5 weeks..on & on & on.
      They did call my previous employer in the U.S & the company where I was working.. before offering my a contract.
      Hang in there. & try to build a history here in Norway.

  2. jenaconti permalink
    10 May 2011 15:16

    Hi Norse –
    Thanks for reading and thanks for your comment and I appreciate you sharing your own experiences here! It is good to remember that finding a job can be hard for anyone.

    It was not my intention, however, to place the blame on xenophobia — rather that it makes sense to hire a Norwegian over me because the Norwegian understands the system better and has better language capabilities. I instead hoped to point a finger at the lack of compassion for immigrants who really do want to work and want to find work — it is not simply a matter of people coming to Norway to leech off the system. Finding a job is HARD, but don’t blame this on immigrants as unproductive! I also hoped to point to a growing anti-immigrant tension in both N. America and Europe (and probably elsewhere): people want fewer immigrants. Why? The 3 reasons I listed at the beginning of this blog entry aren’t supported statistically. Blame the immigrants is the result of living in a sort of dreamworld in which immigration doesn’t exist and purity of culture / nationhood does. In other words: immigration is a 21st reality. Let’s see what positive things come out of it instead of always focusing on the negative.

  3. RHR permalink
    10 May 2011 17:21

    Too often people look back and wish things were more like the rose tinted view they see there instead of looking forward and trying to figure out, given the world/your country/your city/your life, what can you do with that and where do you want it to go. (side note, the sami actually didn’t arrive here first, but they’ve stayed much more the same/separate through the ages, while the first inhabitants of Norway have mixed with all sorts of outsiders through the millennia and the big population shifts).
    I’m Norwegian, my name is Norwegian and I got my degree in Norway. But when I went out to get a job after my bachelor, after the bursting of the IT bubble, it was exceedingly hard, and I read in a newspaper at the time that about 70% of all new hires that year had come through acquaintances/networking. I went back did a 2 years more in college (Master degree), when I got back out into the “real” world there was a big worker deficit, especially in IT so just putting my CV on Finn had people calling me wanting interviews (which was nice).

    tl;dr distance makes the heart grow wronger, sami people can not claim “First!”, to get a job make sure to know people, that there is a huge need for your knowledge or a combination of the two (throw in a bit of luck for good measure).

    • jenaconti permalink
      10 May 2011 21:34

      Hi RHR,
      Thanks for your comments and the correction (I am very happy to have those as well) regarding the Sami. I think what both you and Norse have pointed to is that jobs are not always easy to come by — but my response is: so why blame immigrants when they are also out of work? While you know about and have networks, it can take an immigrants years just to figure out the system. And then there is the issue, for some, of their degrees and qualifications not being accepted in Norway and having to take time to re-do those courses and exams. (See the recent posting by fellow ex-pat at

      So why are unemployed immigrants any more of a strain on the system than Norwegians? The article says, “Innvandrere som ikke kommer i jobb, er ikke god butikk for Norge” — but isn’t this also true of Norwegians who can’t find work?

      It does begin to smack of xenophobia, but I think it also points to what I was trying to say in connection to countries worldwide dealing with increases in immigration: do immigrant citizens have the same right to the social welfare system as Norwegian-born citizens? And if so, then what is the problem? And if not, then why? (why do we still tend to see people from other countries here legally as foreigners and not citizens?)

  4. Jon Foster permalink
    18 May 2011 09:32

    Excellent blog Jena. Tusen takk.

    As a fellow Hoosier (ick) who was in northern Indiana during the beginning of the economic disaster and employed in the RV industry, which is completely a luxury purchase, I have seen the infusion of immigrants into the labor market from both perspectives now. The RV industry is a huge employer in that geographical area with many available jobs and good pay. As you spoke to in an earlier post the local population became largely Mexican because of this. The attitudes about and behavior towards those immigrants by the resident Americans was sometimes shocking. While we Americans recognize that America is a melting pot of multiple cultures, when an immigrant group reaches a certain unknowable level the resident population begins to reject it. In the first place I am very thankful that Norwegians do not treat me the same as my fellow Hoosiers treated the Mexican immigrants, who by and large were also very hard working people who just wanted to live in a more vibrant economy just like me now. Secondly I understand that while Norway has certainly been shaped by immigration in it’s early history, they are also fiercely nationalistic since they won independence from Sweden more recently. Norway’s wealth is also recent and this has caused Norway to become a preferred destination for those people who are willing and able to uproot in order to establish a better life for themselves and their families. America’s entire history has been to accept the world’s poor, tired and hungry and we still get ugly when we see “too many” immigrants. I have experienced much being ” an outsider” here in Norway and have also felt sad, angry and lonely because of this but I do try to look at myself through Norwegian eyes and realize that it’s not personal. Norway doesn’t dislike ME. It’s merely a society being somewhat wary of THE OTHER. That being said, I’m still woefully underemployed and understanding doesn’t put money in the bank or food on my table. I love your blog and if I come up with a foolproof way to appear native Norwegian I will be sure to let you know.

  5. jenaconti permalink
    18 May 2011 19:50

    Hi Jon,
    Really? Another Hoosier from Northern Indiana in Norway? Wow! 🙂

    Thanks so much for your comment and firsthand perspectives. Since moving to Norway I have become very sensitive to anti-immigrant sentiment and esp. published (i.e. sanctioned) anti-immigrant perspectives. I would be very curious to know, for example, whether more stress is placed on the welfare system by Norwegian-born Norwegians on sick leave or by immigrants going from temp job to temp job with some months of unemployment in-between. Or how many Norwegians also struggle to find a job and use the NAV dagpenger system.

    You are quite right to say it is not personal – the only Norwegian who has EVER been the least bit nasty to me was some guy at a shopping mall who shouted at me for parking crooked! (oh, and the numerous folks who ram their shopping carts into me without saying sorry … but I honestly don’t think they realize this is rude.)

    Being wary of the other has turned into wanting the other to go away, and that, I think, promotes racism and xenophobia and a whole lot of misunderstandings about who immigrants are. This is where I see the issue boiling down to whether or not we see immigrants as a vibrant and contributing part of a new vision of the nation – and as a PART of that nation – or whether we continue to sideline them and hope they (we) go away.

    As I said in the post, I don’t see this solely in Norway, but a growing problem in the U.S., Canada, the UK – all over Europe. People are getting edgy about the growing numbers of others in their midst. And it is now interesting to BE one of those others!

    But again, I’m glad to hear the blog resonates with you and DO let me know when you’ve got it all figured out! 🙂

    • Jon Foster permalink
      19 May 2011 05:02

      yep, living right here in Drøbak. It is very very strange to be the immigrant. After two years I still catch myself reading anti-immigration articles and thinking ” Hey! Wait just a damned minute! I’m an immigrant!” That combined with the job searching issues can really put a crimp in what used to be a rock solid self confidence. When I first moved here I was afraid to open the door or answer the phone in case someone spoke to me in Norwegian! And the grocery store behavior? Seriously, what’s the deal? How can you not know that moving someone out of your way and snatching the item they were looking at is rude? And why can you not push your cart as if you were driving a car? Stay on the right side of the isle and we’ll all have room to do our thing , don’t leave it in the middle and walk 3 rows over to look at something.

  6. 24 May 2011 12:40

    I really hear you, some of this really makes my blood boil.
    The media is really on some sort of nationalist kick of late, most likely due to lkommune elections coming up.
    I read today that employers need 60 000 people to fill positions, yet I have been told that I am unsuitable for jobs for no other reason that I am not Norwegian.
    The FRP is out broad-brushing all immigrants as lazy and unwanted, whilst the media runs stories that say we all end up on benefits!
    My frustration has boiled over and I have started to blogg myself, just to vent the frustration and try and find an approach that will bear results.
    Anyway, keep on writing and I’ll keep on reading.

    It is the information we learn from others experiences that can really help us see new perspectives and solutions to seemingly insurmountable challenges.

    • jenaconti permalink
      30 May 2011 22:40

      Hi! Thanks for your comment. I hadn’t put two and two together — that maybe all this anti-immigration rhetoric has something to do with elections. Huh. Have you started a blog? If so, please post the address in a reply!

  7. John Duncan permalink
    25 May 2011 14:19

    Great thoughts, Jena. It opens my eyes/heart a bit wider on the issue of world wide immigration. Living in (Hooserville) in the summer and S. Florida in the winter, I see a large influx of immigrants compared to the last 10 years. My cousin, (American), living in Switzerland for 30 years, comments about Eastern Europeans changing his “space”. Small (er) world, no?
    I’ll see your folks tomorrow and will passed on a hug.

    • jenaconti permalink
      30 May 2011 22:38

      Hi John! Thanks for reading and for your comment. Being an immigrant has certainly made me think about things differently — and hopefully more compassionately. It’s tough, though, because I also understand the wish to keep things as they are. There is safety and comfort in sameness.

  8. kutubuku permalink
    16 January 2012 15:34

    So right!

    While finding jobs are difficult (no denying there), it’s simply unfair to blame us immigrants for being lazy. Same rhetoric in Denmark as well (magnified 100x – as you could imagine), about how these immigrants would come to Denmark and refuse to work and suck up welfare money.

    If you dump CVs with names like Mohammed, or any other foreign sounding name, how the hell are we going to get jobs? Not fair.

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