Immigrants’ Rights Activism in Sweden, the United States, and Japan

Apichai W. Shipper

International migration has become widespread as political turmoil in war-ravished nations is forcing people to seek asylum in more peaceful and prosperous nations, while economic growth and diversification of advanced industrialized countries lure workers from developing countries across borders. In response to international migration, policymakers have struggled to reinterpret or reform existing immigration laws and entitlement schemes in light of both changing economic and demographic realities, but also, and as importantly, shifting public sentiment reflecting different views of immigrants. The experience of Sweden, the United States, and Japan, which possess distinctive political cultures and immigration traditions, provide three types of immigration activism. 

Non-state actors and community activists play an important role in immigrant activism at local, national, and sometimes, supranational levels. I identify three sets of immigrants’ rights groups that dominate in each country: immigrant ethnic associations in Sweden, faith-based organizations and secular immigrant advocacy groups in the United States, and immigrant advocacy NGOs in Japan. Migrants with similar sociocultural backgrounds” instead of “Co-ethnics”? The Swedish government and public use the term “etniska” (or ethnic) for these associations have established immigrant ethnic associations while natives have formed secular and faith-based immigrant advocacy groups to support immigrants. With an active immigration policy to promote their development, immigrant ethnic associations thrive in Sweden. In the United States, both secular and faith-based immigrant advocacy groups have established a lasting presence in immigrant communities and helped organize immigrant mobilization. In Japan, secular immigrant advocacy groups are active in assisting and mobilizing newcomers. 

In Sweden, the government promotes the development of immigrant ethnic associations and the creation of a multicultural society within its borders. Because the government subsidizes immigrant ethnic associations and immigrants have the right to vote in local elections, immigrants tend not to be actively involved in their ethnic associations. Apart from a few minority cultural issues, immigrant organizations have played a subordinate role as representatives of immigrant interests in the democratic process. However, a few of the larger national organizations, including those of Assyrians, Turks, Kurds, and Greeks, have worked as pressure groups in pursuit of language and educational demands. During the 1980s, these groups – through an umbrella organization the Cooperation Groups of Ethnic Associations in Sweden (Samarbetsorgan för etniska organisationer i Sverige or SIOS) – successfully pressured the government to expand the mother-tongue language programs at schools from six to nine years and to enforce anti-discrimination measures. In certain municipalities with substantive foreigner populations, such as Rinkeby, Haninge, and Södertälje, local immigrant ethnic associations have close ties with local officials and politicians. 

From 1995 to 2006, a few dozen immigrant leaders, nominated by their immigrant ethnic associations, played an active role as delegates in the Government’s Council for Ethnic Equality and Integration. Two delegates (one male and another female) from each national immigrant ethnic association served on the Council, together making up over half of its membership. The other members came from religious groups, immigrant rights’ NGOs, and trade unions. The government established these councils to provide a forum for discussion of integration policy in preparation for a proposal to the parliament. The passage of the 2001 Dual Citizenship Law is credited to the influence of representatives of immigrant ethnic associations. They argued that dual citizenship would provide them with added security, while allowing them to feel more at home in Sweden, thus improving their integration into Swedish society. It was an attempt to improve the psychological equality for immigrants in Sweden. 

Since Sweden entered the European Union in 1995, a new strategy of political activism for asylum seekers and minorities has emerged at the supranational level, where these international NGOs network with their local offices from other European countries and lobby the EU to accept policy change in order to get the Swedish government to adopt similar policies. For example, during the 1990s, the Swedish Network of Asylum and Refugee Support Groups (Flyktinggruppemas och Asylkommittéernas Riksråd – FARR) gathered signatures in Sweden and successfully lobbied the EU to accept refugees, particularly from the former Yugoslavia, on humanitarian terms as victims of civil war and internal conflict without some proofs of personal persecution. In general, they lobby the EU to adopt progressive international laws to improve asylum legislations and procedures, to raise reception standards, and to protect “hidden” foreigners. In other words, they prefer a more substantial form of supranational immigrant citizenship to a national form of citizenship and seek to extend European citizenship to immigrants who are not EU nationals. They especially target the European Convention on the Protection of Human Rights, which is legally binding on signatory nations and has a supranational judicial enforcement mechanism – the European Court of Human Rights. 

In the United States, non-state institutions representing ethnic and racial minorities include labor organizations, workers’ centers, advocacy and social service organizations, and church groups. These organizations help immigrants to naturalize, register voters, mobilize the immigrant community around electoral activities, and support candidates sympathetic to immigrant concerns. In particular, faith-based organizations have received government support for their role in providing welfare assistance to the impoverished, including foreigners. Christian organizations have deep roots in supporting immigrants. Since the early twentieth century, when 75 percent of Catholics were immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe who faced accusation of being inassimilable due to their faith, the Catholic Church has offered an array of educational, medical, and social services through social institutions that parallel those of the larger society. After 1965, when immigrants increasingly came from (Catholic) Latin America and East Asia, Christian groups further expanded their support for immigrants and began mobilizing around sets of issues pertinent to their context.

Since the beginning of this millennium, there has been a growing trend of religious involvement in progressive community and organizing efforts in America’s inner cities, where immigrants work and live. Some faith-based organizations have been the driving force in revitalizing declining urban communities by building networks with various community activists to promote multiethnic cooperation and democratic governance. They promote public discussion about immigrant and local issues through public meetings and the mass media. They organize festivals, cultural activities, and other events that bring foreigners and natives together in the community to improve multicultural understanding while preserving certain features of the immigrants’ culture. In the El Monte community of Los Angeles, for example, Our Saviour Center of the Episcopal Church regularly holds celebrations on the Mexican Day of the Dead, American Halloween, and Chinese New Year. In June 2004, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops initiated a nation-wide campaign, “Justice for Immigrants, A Journey of Hope,” to educate Catholics and the public on migration issues and to engage policymakers for a comprehensive immigration reform at the local, state, and national levels. 

Certain faith-based organizations also organize protests against public policy that negatively targets immigrants. They filed lawsuits against those states that passed anti-immigration bills. Numerous faith-based groups endorse legalization and view a crackdown on unauthorized immigrants as immoral or “against the tenets of our faith – to welcome the stranger, to offer hospitality to everyone.” The Catholic Church, in particular, has been at the center of the debate on immigration reform and played a central role in the immigrant-led protests that have swept the United States. On March 26, 2006, the Los Angeles Archdiocese, immigrant advocacy groups, and the Latino media organized a mass demonstration involving over 500,000 protestors in Los Angeles. On May 1, the Church also helped other immigrant rights groups to organize nationally a “Day Without Immigrants” to demonstrate the economic and political clout of immigrants. While businesses that employed many immigrant workers are closed on this day, the Church encouraged parishioners to participate in the protests throughout the United States, offered bishops and priests as speakers, and served as an interlocutor for its newcomer members before Congress and in other public forums. Since then, labor organizers and church groups have organized on May 1 a “Day without Immigrants” or “Immigrant Worker Day” demonstration throughout American cities.

In Japan, where residents from ‘foreigner countries’ do not have voting rights and naturalization is difficult, there is less activity among the formal democratic organizations at the national level. Instead, ethnic, religious, and activist communities have organized NGOs to offer various forms of assistance to foreigners. Activists find elite allies among local governments. In the process of delivering social welfare services to foreign residents, local authorities, particularly in progressive areas, have come to recognize and appreciate the work and expertise of these NGOs. They have established a dialogue with activists by inviting activists to give talks, arranging discussion meetings and citizens’ assemblies, volunteering at their organizations, and even setting up NGO advisory councils in an effort to incorporate them into the process of setting policy priorities for foreign residents in their areas. Local governments then collect information on the welfare needs of their foreign residents and make recommendations to the central government. Hence, activism in Japan finds greater success for policy change when it first starts at the local level before turning into national trends that filter their way up to the national level.

In many local areas of Japan, NGOs have taken the initiatives to provide services to foreigners. In some areas, local governments have taken notice of the success and expertise of certain activists and have established partnership with them by outsourcing certain services for foreigners to these NGOs. For example, Mizula runs two women’s shelters for local governments in Yokohama and Yokosuka. At times, local governments with large foreigners’ population have sided with activists in supporting their activities, which sometime conflict with the official policy of the central government. In 2000, for instance, the mayor of the Hamamatsu City visited the site where the NGO Medical Aid for Foreigners in Hamamatsu (MAF Hamamatsu) offered free medical check-up to foreigners. After seeing the numerous foreigners without health insurance, he decided to relax policy regulations toward joining the national health insurance. 

After repeated interactions, cooperation between local governments and NGOs is increasingly becoming institutionalized and has promoted the creation of innovative institutional environment where foreigners, local officials, and activists come together to discuss matters concerning the livelihood of foreign residents and make policy recommendations to the governor. In 1998, for example, the Kanagawa Prefecture Government established the NGO Kanagawa International Cooperation Council together with the Kanagawa Foreign Residents’ Council. This institutional environment, which consists of a foreigners’ advisory council and an NGO advisory council, provides a sort of democratic deliberation to both marginalized Japanese activists and foreign residents. 

In sum, immigrants’ rights activism constitutes an important component of immigrant political participation, for it creates the conditions under which immigrants can become involved in politics. In this way, immigrants can participate in politics of their host societies. In terms of their targets of activism, activists in Sweden target political elite at all levels: local, national, and supranational. In the United States and Japan, activists target local and national politicians. The important role of activism in immigration politics, particularly in pushing to extend public social programs to non-members, demonstrates the political strength of: organized immigrant ethnic associations in Sweden in formulating integration policy; faith-based organizations in the United States in directing the debate on immigration reforms; and small immigrant rights NGOs in Japan in redefining membership rules and state responsibilities for their residents.

Apichai W. Shipper is an adjunct professor in the Asian Studies Program at Georgetown University and the Asia regional chair at the Foreign Service Institute of the US Department of State. His expertise is in migration, citizenship, civil society, and democratization. He is the author of Fighting for Foreigners: Immigration and Its Impact on Japan (Cornell University Press, 2008; paperback 2016) and numerous articles in peer-reviewed journals. He currently serves as an associate editor of Pacific Affairs and a member of the editorial board of Critical Asian Studies. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US Department of State or the US government. 

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