Our politicians are still having the wrong conversations about immigration

There is common ground among the public, but the both parties are failing to take advantage of opportunities to detoxify the issue.

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The Home Affairs Select Committee report on immigration is out and some of its focus is welcome. Published this week, the cross-party report found that, contrary to the impression created by our demonising right wing press, politicians and the toxic Brexit referendum, pubic attitudes to migrants display a reasonable common ground. It also urges the government to draw the poison out of the debate, building trust and consensus over this divisive issue. All fine so far – but how? First of all, the report suggests removing overseas students from the overall migration figures. This is a no-brainer, agreed by pretty much everyone except Prime Minister Theresa May who came up with the idea while Home Secretary and is now bloody-mindedly sticking to it.

Next up is the immigration target itself – the Conservative government’s pledge to cut numbers into the tens of thousands is unachievable, which itself undermines confidence in the system. OK great, so let’s scrap that, too? Well, no. Instead of ditching targets entirely, this report wants more targets, broken down into migrant types, each with its very own set of controls. The committee also recommends some sort of annual report on the migration figures, to “detail migration flows” - which is hard to view with anything other than suspicion, since it sets up a dynamic of migrants that are viewed as worthy versus those deemed undeserving. (“This year we managed to get those pesky unskilled Romanian worker figures right down, but numbers for nice Norwegian migrants are climbing!”)

No less concerning is the report’s convoluted proposals for a “greater focus” on border enforcement. The current system of immigration control is deliberately punitive. It is a system that operates chaotic immigration centres rife with abuse which drives people to suicidal despair. It is a system that just this week sent a child victim of trafficking back to Vietnam, though he has no family there. As the select committee itself reports, the government’s “hostile environment” approach to illegal immigration is riddled with errors, so that bank accounts are mistakenly closed and driving licenses revoked – which is instantly scary to anyone who wasn’t born in Britain, or has a “foreign”-sounding name.

The implication here seems to be that such severe, botched and opaque enforcement is more of a problem for the people “concerned” about immigration (it erodes trust, you see) than to those actually caught up in this menacing system of making sure migrants never feel at home. Meanwhile, the focus on enforcement fails to explain how we might apply even more controls, or just how much more punitive we want them to be. And, having drafted in doctors, schools, landlords and banks to act as border police, who else would the government recruit? It all serves to support an erroneous framing in which Brits are understandably aggrieved about people taking advantage of the system. It’s not the migrants that cause concern, oh no – it’s the controls system. And nobody is prejudiced here – it is all just a matter of fairness.

These are the contortions that politicians on both sides of the spectrum are now putting themselves through to avoid that difficult conversation in which you tell people the truth. You know, the one where you explain that Britain already has horrifyingly restrictive and punitive controls over immigration, which in any case is not the problem, much less the cause of our current economic hardship or strain on public services. That truth, where you point out that British sectors from health to construction are now, thanks to Brexit and to our hostile environment, facing critical staff shortages because migrants aren’t filling vacancies. The truth, in which you finally disclose that national immigration policy should not and cannot be premised on how any individual might feel about their Polish-speaking neighbour, but rather must be premised on principles of justice, respect for human rights, evidence and economic reality.

This toxic climate over immigration has many propagators as well as deeper historical causes. But it has flourished while many progressive politicians have shied away from challenging it. After all, who wants to have that conversation about immigration, running the risk of detonating a potential bigotgate on every doorstep? And who wants to have that conversation at a time when the issue is relatively dormant – either because people assume it’s going to be sorted by Brexit, or because Brexit has overtaken it on the list of polled concerns? The trouble is that, ahead of those crucial Brexit talks on trade and, by definition, immigration, this is exactly the time to be talking about it, shifting prejudices, unpacking false assumptions and dislodging bogus claims.  

In place of all that, we have a report that rightly calls for an honest conversation but then repackages “legitimate concerns”, moving the focus from migrants to controls over migrants, pretending that this will somehow detoxify the matter, while not dealing with its deep and complicated underlying issues at all