In UK, an All-Too-Familiar Immigration Debate


When U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown called a middle class white woman from a struggling town "bigoted" for her remarks about immigrants, he evoked a theme familiar to immigration politics in the U.S.: Middle-class natives worried about employment prospects, job-seeking migrants arriving in record numbers, voters calling for a tougher political stance, and the suspicion that anti-immigration sentiment is rooted in racism. But despite the familiarity of the theme, the contrasts between the politics of immigration in the two countries might upend some American assumptions about immigration.

Even before the "bigoted" incident, immigration had become a key issue in the looming U.K. elections. At the second party leaders' debate, Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg sounded like candidate Barack Obama when he urged, rather than expelling illegal immigrants, getting them "out of the hands of the criminal gangs, into the hands of the tax man, if they want to play by the rules." Brown, echoing Mitt Romney's attack on John McCain in the 2008 Republican primary, accused Clegg of wanting "amnesty for illegal immigrants." Conservative David Cameron insisted on a "cap" on the number of migrants. But for all those similarities, why does Great Britain lack the U.S. hard-line anti-immigration movement that got us Arizona's controversial enforcement law?

There are revealing similarities and differences in the two countries' immigrants. Foreign-born residents make up slightly more than ten percent of the population in both the U.S. and UK, with grants of asylum accounting for about one percent of new residents. However, 10.7 million of the 38 million foreign-born U.S. residents are here unlawfully, making them three times as likely to reside illegally as the 6.7 million UK migrants, about one in ten of whom are illegal immigrants. That could help explain why Britons like the woman Brown offended worry about legal immigrants while Americans talk primarily about illegal immigrants. A recent poll showed 77 percent of Britons want immigration cut and more than half want it reduced by "a lot." In the U.S., 73 percent want illegal immigration decreased and 60 percent see it as a "very serious" problem. The fact that Britons hold similar attitudes despite mostly legal immigration suggests that the number of immigrants is more important to provoking anti-immigration backlash than whether those immigrants are here legally.

The standard assumption of liberals in both countries, and apparently even of centrist Brown, is that anti-immigration sentiment is rooted in racism. But if British anti-immigration sentiment were rooted in xenophobia, surely the 152,000 Pakistani migrants that arrived between 2004 and 2008 would provoke some of the same outrage that met the 408,000 Polish immigrants that arrived over the same period. After all, Pakistani migrants look different from most Brits and practice Islam whereas Poles look similar and practice Christianity. The 2004 and 2005 London terror attacks involved immigrants from several countries, including Pakistan, but none from Poland. But U.K. immigration politics are driven mostly by concern about the Poles, not the Pakistanis. Why? Pakistanis flee to England for a number of reasons, often related to the country's crumbling infrastructure and ongoing war, and once in England often struggle to reach the middle class (61 percent of U.K. Muslim families make less than ₤20,000 annually). Polish and other Eastern European immigrants, however, come to join England's well-paying job market and strong middle class. Since 1997, the number of Eastern Europeans working in the UK has exploded from 13,000 to 472,000, 1.63 percent of the total workforce. Meanwhile, the number of jobs in the country has plummeted.

Britain's spike in unemployment is not caused by the arrivals of Polish workers. After all, from July 2008 to June 2009, the year when the proportion of Central Europeans in the workforce most rapidly increased by rising from 1.3 to 1.6 percent, unemployment increased eight times as rapidly, jumping from 5.4 to 7.8 percent. But the presence of foreign-born job-holders can make native-born job-seekers wonder if immigrants are somehow to blame for the sudden loss of openings. In the U.S., while the severity of Arizona's law is certainly surprising, the rise of anti-immigration sentiment in the wake of the recession probably should not be. After all, the Southwest has been hit especially hard. Arizona's legislation, then, may be less about racism and xenophobia as its liberal critics claim and more about merely the economy. Culture anxieties can and do exist in both countries, of course. Native-born Americans and Britons can worry about their changing society without the economy dropping and without being bigots. Certainly, there have always been bigots, and in times of widespread anti-immigration sentiment they often find their ways to the spotlight. But economic factors do appear to be a more driving force in anti-immigration movements. After all, both the U.S. and UK have been experiencing society-changing immigration for generations, but this current backlash did not begin until the recession hit. However, the way that Arizona got its race-targeting law--and why the U.K. doesn't have a parallel law--may have less to do with anti-immigrant sentiment and more to do with politicians who want to champion that outrage.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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