Immigration Today: A Tale of Two World CupTeams

Algeria’s 2010 World Cup team was an oddity. Most of the squad’s players were not actually born in Algeria, and many of them do not speak Arabic. In fact, an astonishing 17 of the 23 players on the Algerian squad are the French-born children of Algerian immigrants who decided to play for their parent’s country rather than the country of their birth. Elsewhere in South Africa, the French national team could have used some help. Les Bleus, who in 2006 advanced to the World Cup finals, imploded spectacularly this summer. France failed to advance past the first round and did not win a single game; in total, France’s prestigious squad scored one goal. Without the leadership of Zinedine Zidane, another son of Algerian immigrants, French soccer has struggled.

Off the pitch, France, like many continental European countries, has struggled to integrate its large population of non-white immigrants, especially the Muslim communities from Turkey and northern Africa. Unlike the United States, French citizenship does not come with birth; one must demonstrate sufficient “Frenchness” and pass an interview. In practice, this means that an individual who was born in France, speaks French, and has lived in France for his or her entire life may still be denied French citizenship. A person whose grandparents immigrated to France might still not be considered a French citizen.

This hurts France. Its restrictive immigration and citizenship laws have created a large, expanding underclass of impoverished non-citizens. Many live in poor housing projects spread through the suburbs, called banlieues, that surround wealthy Paris. There, violence in the streets is a daily reality. Forcibly cut off from the French mainstream and victims of heavy discrimination, these individuals have rioted, most notably in 2005 when thousands of cars were burned across France, forcing the French government to declare a state of emergency.

Most of Algeria’s football squad comes from the banlieues. The players’ decision to play for Algeria, not France, is a powerful symbol of France’s continuing problems with integrating its ethic minorities.

Judging by its performance in this year’s World Cup, France could use these players. The national team needs the children of immigrants, like the next Zinedine Zidane or Thierry Henry. If Mr. Zidane had decided to play for Algeria instead of France, as many Algerian immigrants with French residency are now choosing to do, France probably—certainly—would not have won the 1998 World Cup or made it to the championship match four years ago. To be fair, Algeria also performed poorly at the past World Cup. Les Fennecs, or the Desert Foxes, went 0-1-2 and failed to score a single goal. But maybe if a couple of French-born first- and second-generation immigrants had decided to play for France instead of Algeria, France would have done a bit better. Maybe the French would have scored more than one goal. Perhaps they would have won a game. They might even have advanced to the second round.

Then again, the French national team already sports a host of immigrants. Florent Malouda was born in French Guiana. Patrice Evra hails from Senegal. Six starters—Anelka, Abidal, Diaby, Gallas, Govou, and Sagna—claim African or Caribbean heritage. First- and second-generation immigrants of former French colonies are already heavily represented on France’s squad. This begs the question, how much would the newly arrived Algerians help? Previous waves of immigration seem to have been successfully assimilated into the French soccer program but have brought the country little success in recent international competitions. If they elected to do so, any of the French players could probably play for their parents’ home countries.

There is also a lesson for America here. As the world’s melting pot, the U.S. would not be able to field a team without immigrants. Oguchi Onyewu, the center back, would not be in the squad if his parents had not moved to the U.S. from Nigeria. Neither would Jozy Altidore if his parents hadn’t moved from Haiti. The same is true for Herculez Gomez and Mexico. Nowadays, a number of Republican politicians are advocating a stricter, harsher policy on immigration; some propose stripping citizenship from the children of undocumented immigrants. They want, in other words, for the United States to move toward a French-style immigration policy. Unless the United States wants to play like Les Bleus on the world’s stage, these conservatives ought to carefully reconsider their stance.

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