The UK migration debate: lessons from America

Why have US activists have been more successful than their British counterparts in building a constructive immigration dialogue within mainstream politics, asks Katy Long.

Katy Long
2 September 2013

Liberal Britain comforts itself with the idea that, however bad things may get, it’s worse in America. The death penalty; gun control; worker’s rights; healthcare; abortion – how easy to smugly list the ways in which Britain is better, more progressive, more civilised. But there’s one issue on which we’d do well to look across the Pond with far more humility: immigration.

As the US Congress headed into its August recess without an Immigration Reform Act in sight, this may seem an unlikely claim. After all, the future of the Senate bill that would hugely increase the number of visas available and offer undocumented migrants a path to citizenship is uncertain. But living in America over the past six months, it strikes me that even as the UK ‘debate’ on migration grows ever more shrill, America is talking about migration in constructive, rational and often positive terms.

Even if national US immigration reform fails, there are signs that a pragmatic approach to migration is spreading. Ten states now issue drivers’ licenses to anyone regardless of their immigration status. Only two – Arizona and Nebraska – refuse to issue licenses to those brought to the US illegally as children. Yet in the Queens’ Speech this year, the UK Government announced the exact opposite: measures to ensure that the DVLA does not issue driving licenses to any irregular migrant.

That’s not to say there aren’t groups that make UKIP voters look left-of-centre in the US. On the opposite side of the political spectrum, activists have criticised the Senate Bill for its elitism in trading the green card ‘American Dream’ lottery for high-skilled tech workers’ visas. The $46 billion allocated for border security is absurd – though proof for the Defence Industry that lobbying pays. Many claim that the immigration bill is not enough: just as many claim that it goes too far.


FWD.US: 'Fighting for Comprehensive Immigration Reform'

But it’s precisely the compromises writ large in this Bill that are evidence of genuine attempts to a broker political deal. Mainstream political opinion seems to recognise that it’s the immigration system, not migration itself, that’s the problem. Even if America’s discussion is not yet concluded, the gains not yet certain, it is impossible to imagine leader of the opposition Ed Miliband and UK Prime Minister David Cameron even discussing these ideas, let alone coming so close to agreeing terms. So why are things so different in the UK? And are there lessons we can learn from the US’ grown-up migration conversation?

It’s not just about public education.  Both the US and UK public are shockingly ill informed when it comes to immigration. In both countries the foreign-born make up about 13% of the population, but your average Brit guesses 31%. Your average American? 38%. Nor can the difference in political climate be entirely ascribed to differences in public opinion: while survey after survey shows Britons are resolutely opposed to immigration, just over half of Americans also think migration is more of a threat than an opportunity.

Ah, but America is different, the apologists cry: the manifest destiny of its huddled masses is built upon a Great Migration Story. Yet a narrative’s power doesn’t necessarily depend on its truth. 

America started legislating to exclude migrants it didn’t like a full 30 years before Britain started to do the same. US Legislation excluded first Chinese women, then all Chinese: by 1924 Jews and Southern Europeans were being added to the list. So we should be wary of using America’s grand migration myths to excuse our own xenophobia. This is not to suggest that the American migration story isn’t compelling, but we should remember too that it was forged despite the constant opposition of (white) settlers who had already arrived. Should we choose to believe it, Britain could write a pretty starry migration story too, a line from the twelfth to twenty-first century; from Flemish and French weavers through Polish soldiers and Somali seamen to Indian entrepreneurs.

The fiscal argument that Britain’s social welfare system only works with strict migration controls looks shaky after recent studies from the OECD and the Office for Budget Responsibility suggesting the opposite. It is only steady immigration (or radically higher taxes) that can sustain spending without creating unsustainable levels of national debt. Our farmers are equally dependent upon seasonal agricultural labourers to do the work Britons won’t or can’t do. The rising power of Hispanic voters has surely driven Republicans in the US to the negotiating table, but if the US will be a majority-minority country by 2050, most recent demographic projections suggest the UK will not be far behind. Reports last month suggest the Tory party is already concerned that its inability to attract minority voters may cost it the next election.

In other words, there are no fundamental, structural differences between the UK and US that can simply explain or excuse the choice to treat immigration, and not the immigration system, as the problem. Ceding the centre-ground to the reactionary right on migration, as with the now-notorious ‘Go Home’ van stunt, is a coward’s choice. The Republicans and Democratic who have shepherded US immigration reform almost within reach are far more courageous.

Part of the reason they’ve done so, however, is the presence of an articulate and organised pro-migration lobby. This coalition – from A-grade students waiting for the Dream Act to Mark Zuckerburg of Facebook and other CEOs in need of high-tech workers – are an audible, eloquent presence. And here, I think, is a telling difference. In the UK, while there’s plenty of anger and outrage at the current direction of immigration policy, it’s harder to identify groups offering a coherent and concrete set of positive policy alternatives. Too many working on refugee and migration issues are exhausted from fire-fighting. Too many initiatives stick to the safety of broad discourses on identity and multiculturalism, insisting they must remain politically neutral despite this being the most politicized of issues.


Divided families protest outside Home Office. Demotix/ Peter Marshall

Until joined-up policy alternatives do coalesce, it will be easy for those who don’t like immigration to ignore both the evidence and opponents’ howls of outrage in pursuit of short-term popularity. Yet there are issues around which a moderate, proactive platform could emerge. Obvious starting points include revising the family migration rules that have left nearly half of Britons unable to meet the onerous financial requirements for foreign spouses’ visas, lobbying for more visas to help address the chronic shortage of well-trained software engineers holding back Tech City growth, and championing the 120,000 British-born children of irregular immigrants deserving of their own Dream Act.  Creative thinking could help to reimagine migration so it’s no longer considered a necessary evil, but becomes a lynchpin of every socially progressive political agenda.  

We laugh at US politicians, rolling our eyes at the idea that you can vote not to ban assault weapons, or that you can seriously think the NHS runs ‘death panels’. But now we’re the ones playing fantasy politics. So for those of us who want to see real migration reform, the constructive tones of bipartisan US immigration efforts should be our guide. For surprising as it may seem, when it comes to immigration, America may yet have a lesson for us on how to avoid substituting the cheap but dangerous politics of demagogy for the real responsibilities of democratic government.

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