In UK, an All-Too-Familiar Immigration Debate

What's really driving anti-foreigner anxiety in Arizona and across the U.S.?


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.

In the U.S., politicians are seeing the Arizona law and other states' copycat laws and concluding that because the laws target race, the anti-immigration sentiment at their root must be about race. Alabama Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim James is campaigning on "we speak English." Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez is among the Democrats using the law to rally Latino voters with an us-versus-them mentality. Both Republicans riding the anti-immigration wave and Democrats seeking to either confront or co-opt it make the same mistake: Assuming the movement is motivated by hatred of foreigners, fear of "illegals," or both. These nastier elements may well be present, especially in the more notorious leaders like Arizona Republican Russell Pearce, whose presence give the entire movement an appearance of xenophobia.

But if anti-immigration sentiment in the U.S. also shares the same basic motivation as in the U.K., then our movement could be driven by something much simpler and arguably less sinister: Economic anxiety. After all, both U.S. and U.K. job markets have suffered deeply in recent years, and both countries have seen the influx of immigrants escaping their own dire economies in search of employment. Although immigration is a net gain to both nations' economies, native job-seekers often fear that competing with immigrants will make it harder for them to find work. Whether or not it's a correct fear, it's an understandable fear, especially since so few leaders in either country do anything to address it.

Prime Minister Brown quickly apologized for calling the voter worried about immigration "bigoted." After all, publicly shrugging off anti-immigration sentiment as baseless and racist is bad politics. But it's also a self-fulfilling prophecy that creates bad policy. U.K. politicians like Brown who believe that key voting blocks are deeply anti-immigrant go on screen to make pointed statements against immigration. U.K. media covering the election then either praise the tough stance against immigrants or deride the xenophobia of the anti-immigration movement. Meanwhile, challenger candidates either run as protectors of the immigrant voters against xenophobia or as law-and-order crusaders who will finally clean up the borders.

When this issue, at it's core about jobs and the economy, becomes a debate about racism and enforcement, that process determines how politicians on both sides of the aisle and on both sides of the pond confront immigration. Even if Clegg wins, like Obama he'll need a broad coalition to govern, which means addressing the more anti-immigration opposition. On our side of the Atlantic, state-level Republicans want to copy Arizona's law, which is so harsh it's likely unconstitutional. Senate Democrats, apparently fearing a xenophobe backlash, are crafting legislation with enforcement provisions stronger than anything considered by the Bush administration. Not only does none of this address what looks to be the underlying cause of anti-immigration sentiment--high unemployment--it actually escalates a nasty and often race-based confrontation in which, as former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson put it, "nobody wins."

Image: After debating immigration and other topics at their second televised debate, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and Conservative leader David Cameron shake hands. Stefan Rousseau/AFP/Getty