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Trump’s Muslim Ban is a Warning: We Must Reject Anti-Migrant Narratives

The left are currently in agreement over one important policy: they have condemned Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban” in the strongest possible terms and castigated Theresa May for her unsurprisingly lacklustre response. But amid this harmony there’s a note of discord. A significant number of the Labour MPs expressing their disgust at Trump’s politics have in recent times called for “stronger border checks”. Trump’s chauvinistic politics are possible and popular, in part, because of the US version of this very discourse (and this importantly has an explicitly Islamophobic tone to it, which should not be downplayed). His policies are what “stronger checks” can look like in practice.

This is a lesson for the left, and the Labour party in particular: if they want to shift the politics on to their terrain and fight the xenophobia that played a significant role in giving us Trump and Brexit, they have to reject anti-migrant sentiment in all its forms.

The immigration debate is essentially about establishing boundaries: it creates an “us” (British-born people) and a “them” (people who happened to be born in another country and have been let into Britain by an unconcerned elite). This is a distinction right wing populism thrives off. As academic Richard Seymour has written, the aim of a left wing counter to this should dramatically refashion exactly to whom “us” and “them” refers: the financial class, the business elite; people who have kept an unequal system ticking along just nicely should be its aim. If Labour try to be “tough” on immigration, Seymour argues, their populist project is doomed to fail.

Yet there’s a tendency on the left to submit to the prevailing mood because in anti-immigrant times loaded messages like calling for “stronger borders” are alluring; they seem like a direct way to connect with the public. Since Brexit there has been a resurgent trend on the Labour left: politicians and commentators suggest that migration has caused insecurity at the lower end of the pay scale and over people’s sense of “culture”. People who once defended immigration are now suggesting Labour need to “listen” to people on immigration or realise that freedom of movement must be stopped or changed in some “progressive” way.

Now, the first argument has been disproven time and again. This well-rehearsed point is consistently buried by politicians: migrants do not undercut British peoples’ wages and abolishing freedom of movement will not stop exploitation. To suggest it will obscures potential solidarity between exploited British-born and migrant workers – it disrupts the opportunity to include migrants in the “us” that populism relies upon and lets the exploitative economic system, and all the people who profit from it, off the hook.

Then there’s the argument that migration is causing untold damage to peoples’ “cultural” traditions. No matter how it’s dressed up this is a racialised idea (even if the migrants are white they can still be racialised as the “other” – although social constructions of ‘race’ are historically and geographically contingent and not static). Since biological racism was denounced in many quarters at the end of empire, culture has often been used as a proxy for race. In the 1960s, politicians argued the number of migrants coming from Asia should be limited because they had an “excess” of culture; now certain Labour MPs rush to explain anti-immigration sentiment as a product of cultural anxiety when “too many” immigrants move an area.

This thinking is presented as perfectly reasonable. But it’s based on the idea that there is an inherent difference between migrants and people born in this country – when there isn’t. Often anxiety over “cultural” difference is about fear of the unknown or perhaps more accurately in this case, fear of migrants who are consistently demonised in British press and politics: it’s the fear that drove the leave vote – not immigration itself. It’s also constructed fear of Muslims, who are often treated as the ultimate “other”, that forms the basis of Trump’s incendiary policies. While people and groups might have different traditions or histories, moving to the UK or US from another country doesn’t make someone unable to connect with people in their new home. Where people say they feel they’ve loss of identity, the stripping away of community hubs, the obsessive focus on individualism over collectivism (think Thatcher’s “there’s no such thing as community”) and rampant consumerism are to blame.

When politicians argue that Labour must listen to people’s “legitimate concerns” over immigration, they mean agree with them. It’s possible to listen and convince people otherwise. In fact, it’s necessary, and public concern is well documented. People are worried about immigration; the left should show them there is no reason to be. The aim should be to demystify difference by humanising the people that are so regularly treated as a faceless mass and including them in how Britons understand “we, the people”. As news loops show the human outcome of US state policy on people so regularly dehumanised in political and media discourse, this is a time to bring the “other” into “us”.

The anger at Trump’s discriminatory policy is an opportunity for the left in the UK and beyond to galvanise people against violent border policies that have been normalised in the state apparatus and transform the way migrants are depicted in this country. None of this equates to dismissing people’s feelings but it would mean speaking to them in a way that deconstructs prejudice.

In the hostile climate of Brexit negotiations, those of us who are advancing a pro-migration argument are treated as out of touch. We’re told we misunderstand the gap between our thinking and the rest of the public or our response is mischaracterised as simply wanting to label people “racist”. None of this is true.  Most of us are aware of just how deeply entrenched anti-migrant feeling is in this country; we’ve seen or experienced the xenophobia and racism that says migrant “culture” is a problem and relies on blaming people from abroad for low wages.

To acknowledge anti-immigration sentiment and that the justification for abandoning freedom of movement fundamentally relies on demonising migrants is not to call every single person who criticises immigration a racist. But for the left to overlook this means forming an inadequate and irresponsible response to Brexit - one that ultimately panders to the politics of the right. The line between calling immigration a problem and banning certain citizens from entering the country is a fuzzy one indeed.