The statistics released from UCL last week on the economic benefits of immigration seriously throw into doubt the arguments against cutting the number of migrants, especially from the EU. Any evidence that rebuts the vociferous anti-immigration language emanating from Ukip and, increasingly from Whitehall, should be seen a good thing. Sometimes, though, a victory can be a defeat.
According to Pheobe Griffith of IPPR, there are a number of aspects of immigration that get missed out when we leave the economists to make the case: “Research like this is useful in policy terms, but not in terms of actually getting the public onside. The fitting-in element is much more to do with our social reality and the fact people want to feel like they live in places that are not just economic entities”.
The problem is that in challenging arguments against immigration on the basis of economic contribution to the public purse, the pro-immigration employ the same discriminatory language as the right. As Zoe Williams wrote recently in the Guardian, “bagging up foreigners and weighing them by their economic usefulness is more racist than closing the borders”. It is fair to ask how this approach significantly differs from that used during the slave trade, when people were bought and sold based on their ability to pick more cotton. It is demeaning and dehumanising to reduce a person to their relative economic value and ignore the diversity advantage they might bring to their community.
This crude cost/benefit approach to immigration has impacted upon integration policy and divides communities. Phil Wood, co-author of The Intercultural City, argues that for some migrants the discourse “drives them even harder to become economically effective, because they believe that’s the only way they can be noticed.” Such an approach to incoming non-nationals is divisive, as it automatically pits migrants against migrants, but also pre-existing populations. “It leads to alienation and we are a very alienated society at the moment”.
It was New Labour, rather than John Major, that gave Thatcher’s neoliberal policies a human face and, in the sphere of community cohesion, this came wrapped in the guise of integration.
However, hiding behind the rhetoric of a two-way process involving host and guest is an increasingly neo-assimilatory policy towards integration that expects migrants, especially those wanting to take British nationality, to adhere to neoliberal ideals of self-sufficiency, not being a burden on the state and being an active participant in the economy (as a worker, tax-payer, and purchaser). Even policy titles use this language, such as the 2008’s Earning the Right to Stay.
To paraphrase Will Kymlicka, this is what we might call “citizenship-as-desired-activity” and obviously sits within a wider public debate, led by the coalition, on skivers vs strivers. Moreover, these values have become “British values”. To be, or become, a good British citizen, you have to be a net contributor. Failure to do so risks alienation and demonization by politicians and the media.
Of course, immigration and integration policy ensures migrants are at a distinct disadvantage. “Scrounging” asylum seekers drawn by the oh-so-generous pull of £36 a week are not allowed to take on paid work and thus cannot contribute. Refugees, who are allowed to work, are caught in a Catch-22 situation: If they work over 18 hours, they lose access to free English classes. If they work less, they get access to classes, but not enough money to pay the rent or get to work. Without the vital skill of better English, they are more likely to remain in low-skilled, low-paid jobs and rely on benefits, which in turn “marks” them as in some way deficient.
While this is happening, the passport applications of foreign investors over £10m are fast-tracked from four down to two years. Money talks and those without it are silenced; denied agency in the debate on how migrants should be seen and heard.
Thus by using the language of neoliberalism to challenge anti-immigration voices, the left’s arguments on immigration, and a whole host of other policies, have become straitjacketed. Progressives have been rendered nil by mouth and this adds another nail in the coffin of multiculturalism.
Progressives need to be proactive and find another way to talk about immigration that includes the non-economic additive value that migrants bring to communities around the country. In not doing this, and merely reacting to the hegemony of neoliberal thought and policy, it denies them the respect and recognition they deserve.
Sam Bennett is a researcher in critical linguistics at Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan, Poland. He tweets @samtbennett