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The Stakes: Immigration

Where are we at?

There are two distinct but intertwining factors to consider when looking at immigration: 1) rhetoric on migration, and 2) policies and migrants’ rights.

We mustn’t be under any false impressions: anti-immigration sentiment is deeply entrenched in UK society. Although it is not always peoples’ primary concern (particularly when they are asked to think about issues at a local level), polls show the public wants to reduce migration. But this must be seen in a context in which migrants have been used as scapegoats for the country’s problems. Many politicians and much of the right wing press have repeated the fallacies that migrants are to blame for low pay and for the crisis in our public services. Both arguments are used to distract people from the effects of consistent government underfunding and the decisions made by exploitative employers to drive down wages.

But there is a key element of the migration debate that has less to do with economics and more to do with the slippery term 'identity'. There’s a belief, which finds its roots in the British Empire, that migrants are a threat to the nation. The public are told migrants have inalienable differences from 'us' and threaten 'our' society. This dehumanising, racialised rhetoric is dangerous, and had a role to play in the 41% spike in hate crimes after the EU referendum.

Then there are migrants' rights. At the moment, these can broadly be divided up into the rights experienced by non-EU migrants and EU migrants respectively. Under the Conservative government, the former have had their rights even further chipped away. For instance, all skilled workers from outside the EU who have been living here for less than 10 years now need to earn at least £35,000 a year to settle permanently in the UK (although certain jobs are exempt). Similarly, British citizens who bring non-European spouses into the country must earn over £18,600. In the context of declining salaries and higher rates of in-work poverty, this is a migration policy designed to suit people with money. In fact, Theresa May has worked to actively create a 'hostile environment' for migrants and refugees, which has left many people destitute. Doctors, nurses, letting agents and teachers have been turned into border guards, asked to find out the nationalities of the people they interact with professionally.

The status of EU migrants - both those who are currently here and people who want to come to this country after we leave the EU - is less clear. The Conservatives and Labour have pledged freedom of movement will come to an end. There are laudable critiques to be made of a Europe that allows movement across its member states but builds walls laced with barbed wire around its continental border. But this is largely not a debate being had in the UK’s Brexit negotiations. What we could see that is even if EU migrants currently in the UK are permitted to stay, their rights could be drastically reduced. For those who want to come into the UK, they too will face reduced rights.

What’s at stake in the General Election?

May has a hard position on immigration. Going into the General Election, she reiterated her promise to cut migration to the tens of thousands (a pledge she has made for the past six years). But she has done so knowing full well she can’t keep her word: from an economic viewpoint (one lens used to look at the migration debate, but which should never be taken in isolation), this is simply not feasible. Despite this reality, she’ll continue to blame migrants for falling living standards.

We are faced with the prospect of a Conservative government that, in the words of Iain Duncan Smith, will classify some human beings as 'low value' and allow this to guide migration policy. History tells us this kind of politics can be very dangerous indeed.

The Conservatives are likely to use Brexit to make migrant workers easier to exploit. This will occur alongside an attack on workers’ rights more broadly. A Conservative government will sow further discontent to keep migrants and Britons divided, while at the same time stripping rights away from the very people it purports to represent.

Meanwhile, depending on how EU negotiations proceed, Britons could find it more difficult or at the very least, more expensive, to holiday in Europe.

What can be done?

The way we address immigration must be multifaceted. In tangible policy terms, the next government could begin by getting rid of arbitrary detention and ensuring that workplaces have better access to trade unions, including in precarious work.

Instead of simply seeing all anti-migrant sentiment as a product of 'legitimate concerns', we should probe other factors that are at play with regards to social anxiety. Factors rarely mentioned when politicians discuss peoples’ sense of unease with the world around them include: deindustrialisation, which has left many communities decimated; rising use of technology, which atomises people and increases levels of loneliness; and lack of investment in local services, which means people don’t have public spaces – like community centres and social clubs – to interact with one another and build a sense of community. These issues too should be brought into sharp focus.

We should redouble our efforts to challenge anti-migrant politics. One of the arguments made in defence of immigration is that migrants are net contributors to the economy. On one level this makes sense - migrants are demonised as a drain on society, and we want to counter that mistruth. But relying solely on this argument risks reducing people to pound signs, implying that they only count if they’re contributing. We must also break down perceived differences between 'us' and 'them'. Using anti-racist strategies, prejudicial ideas must be challenged to show people have far more in common than current rhetoric allows. 

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