Immigration policy has become a political football on both sides of the Atlantic. There are substantial popular concerns and politicians, who want to attract voters, respond by taking a populist stance. The topic has become a matter of point-scoring instead of a review of what would be in the best interests of the population.
Britain and America experience different immigration pressures but they face the same list of problems, including border control, assimilation, benefits policy and the granting of citizenship.
Conservatives in both countries have attempted to restrict immigration in ways that are economically damaging and appear hostile. For example, Jeff Jacoby’s article in The Boston Globe on 9 May 2010 criticised the 2010 Arizona immigration law as being “foolish, perverse, and repugnant to American interests and ideals”. The British Conservative party saddled itself with an arbitrary target of reducing net immigration to 100,000 people a year (less than half the current figure); on 12 October 2012 The Economist described this as “The Tories’ barmiest policy” and noted that it is “creating red tape, stifling entrepreneurs and hobbling Britain”.
Republicans are now openly discussing the need for their party to espouse immigration reform as a policy, following their defeat in last November’s presidential election. The New York Times published an analysis on 9 November 2012 which opened with this observation:
“After a presidential election in which Latino voters rewarded President Obama while punishing Republicans for their positions on immigration, Republican leaders and prominent conservatives moved quickly this week to shift to new ground, saying they could support some kind of legislation to fix illegal immigration.”
The five-member Growth and Opportunity Project of the Republican National Committee has now produced a report calling for “comprehensive immigration reform”. The American Enterprise Institute reviewed this report in an article on 19 March 2013, entitled Republicans need to show support for Hispanic dreams.
Immigration reform is also now being actively discussed in Britain – but politicians are still trying to clamp down more tightly rather than addressing the issue as a whole. The Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, made a speech on Friday 22 March which promised to reintroduce exit checks, without which no real control is possible, but the speech attracted headlines for other reasons. The headline on a Guardian article was “Nick Clegg abandons illegal immigrant amnesty proposal” – a policy he is abandoning not because he thought it was wrong but because people think that it might encourage more illegal immigration. The headline on a BBC article was “Clegg backs ‘security bonds’ as he sets out immigration stance” – referring to the suggestion that some visitors might be asked to deposit a ‘security bond’ when they arrive in the country, redeemable when they leave; this has been criticised as unworkable.
David Cameron’s speech on 25 March talked about “what we are doing to get a grip on immigration into our country”. He outlined a miscellany of proposals to close loopholes in the current system of immigration control and set a tone of aiming for competent administration whilst avoiding xenophobia. This seems reasonable enough, if somewhat belated, though he said nothing about strengthening the UK Border Agency – which is reported to have a backlog in processing which would “take 24 years to clear” at the current rate of progress and which has lost track of tens of thousands of people who have applied for entry to Britain.
The politicians are focusing on trying to reduce the numbers of immigrants and reducing their welfare benefits and are paying insufficient attention to the problems of assimilation. An article in Prospect magazine on 22 March, entitled What Clegg should have said about immigration, pointed out that “the question of integration—what happens when migrants actually arrive—was passed over and it has been neglected by policymakers, both under past governments and the present coalition”. This need was also noted in the book Patterns of Power (188.8.131.52): immigrants who have arrived need somewhere to live and there will be an increased load on education and health services. And it is important, both for the immigrants themselves and for the people around them, that they learn English quickly.
Welfare benefits are part of the larger issue of the rights and responsibilities of citizens, of long-term residents from other countries (sometimes referred to as ‘denizens’), and of short-term visitors. These are a matter for political negotiation, as described in the book Patterns of Power (6.7.3).