Immigration Splits Conservative Parties in Both the U.S. and the U.K.

Whereas reform is creating rifts in the GOP, it's driven by splintering among the British Conservatives.


A proposal for sweeping immigration reform, hammered out by the bipartisan group of senators called the Gang of Eight, passed a key test in the Senate Monday when 67 senators -- including 15 Republicans -- voted in favor of a compromise bill with an amendment strengthening border security.

The amendment, designed to address mostly Republican lawmakers' concerns about border enforcement, doubles federal agents on the U.S.-Mexican border to about 40,000 and will provide them with more high-tech equipment. The reform bill's core -- and its most controversial debate fodder -- is the "path to citizenship" for over 11 million undocumented migrants, but this measure is balanced out by increased border control, including $1.5 billion for more fencing and more money for surveillance drones and customs agents.

While many Republicans lawmakers are pro-reform, others say the path to citizenship would encourage illegal immigration and bring huge costs to the American taxpayer.

In the U.S., the debate over the bill is creating an acrimonious split in the Republican Party, but in the U.K., the narrative of immigration overhaul has been shaped by the fracturing of the Conservative Party. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, who leads a coalition government with the Liberal Democratic party, recently announced tighter rules on immigration, with key provisions limiting access to U.K. welfare for migrants from the European Union, restricting migrants' access to the National Health Service, and requiring landlords and employers to verify the status of their tenants or face heavy fines. These measures are framed by the goal of reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" per year from hundreds of thousands.

While these measures address legitimate concerns in the U.K. about the unusually high immigration under the Labour government from 1997-2010, critics say Cameron's measures are too draconian and will discourage bright and qualified foreign students and workers from coming to Britain. They feel Cameron is trying to stop voters and his own Members of Parliament (MPs) from defecting to fringe nationalist parties over immigration and EU issues. In part to assuage calls for renegotiating the U.K.'s membership terms with the EU and calm growing anti-EU sentiment, in January Cameron announced that he would hold an "in-out" referendum on the EU in 2017 should his party be re-elected in 2015.


Republican detractors of the U.S. reform bill say the path to citizenship amounts to "amnesty" that would encourage further illegal immigration, and they want stronger border security measures to be in place before the path is opened. They also argue that the current provisions for new citizens to pay back taxes -- a condition for citizenship -- are too weak, because it requires them to come forward themselves.

Disagreements are not necessarily split along party lines. Some Democrats share the concern over border security and enforcement, for example. But it is the disagreements among Republicans that are most notable. As one column put it, "[t]he current U.S. Congress is unique in having three political parties: One Democratic and two Republican."

Party infighting has been especially evident in the blogosphere. In April, Erick Erickson wrote on that pro-immigration advocates on the right are "attacking other conservatives who disagree with them as racists, slavery supporters, bigots, haters, baby killers, un-Christian ... They are waging a coordinated attack between Senator [Marco] Rubio's office and others against conservative stalwarts like the Heritage Foundation and Jim DeMint." Also in April, some conservative commentators falsely accused Rubio of supporting a measure that would give free cell phones to illegal immigrants -- quickly dubbed "MarcoPhones."

The split is also hampering the party's rebranding efforts. Some Republicans realized that after Mitt Romney's defeat in the 2012 presidential election, the party needed to rethink its strategy and address its image problem. Having Rubio leading the charge on bipartisan immigration reform efforts as a key member of the Gang of Eight was one way of doing this. Rubio, a potential 2016 candidate and great hope for reversing the party's slide among Hispanic voters, is the son of Cuban immigrants (though whether they are in fact 1959-Castro exiles , as he once claimed, is still a matter of dispute).

Rubio and his fellow Republicans in the Gang of Eight will walk a fine line if and when the bill is put to a vote in the House of Representatives. If the border security amendment is perceived as too strong, the GOP could lose the chance to win back the crucial Hispanic vote and an opportunity to rejuvenate the party. They will be vilified by the Democrats and by much of the public. If the amendment is perceived as too weak, meanwhile, they will be vilified by their own party.


In the U.K., the current immigration debate is linked to the country's relationship with the EU. While there was always some concern among both politicians and the public (stoked by certain factions of the media) over the effect of a possible influx of Eastern European immigrants on public services, the EU's travails have thrust the issue into the spotlight.

Prime Minister David Cameron is broadly pro-Europe, but the U.K. itself has generally been more EU-ambivalent. The eurozone's economic and political crises have reinforced this "Eurosceptic" belief -- particularly among but not limited to conservatives -- that Brussels and Britain are fundamentally incompatible, and it manifests itself in claims that European courts undermine the U.K.'s common-law tradition or that EU bureaucracy harms London's financial competitiveness.

In a March speech, Cameron toughened his rhetoric on immigration, and the Queen's speech, setting out the government's plans for new laws, outlined promises to clamp down on migrants' "abusing public services" and to stem the flow of other Europeans into Britain. (The evidence that EU migrants abuse Britain's welfare services, however, is scant).

The Eurozone crisis has energized the anti-EU core of the Conservative Party and general anti-EU sentiment, and the U.K. Independence Party "UKIP" seems to be the main beneficiary. An anti-EU, anti-immigration party, for years languishing on the periphery of U.K. politics, it has made some headway by presenting itself as populist, anti-elitist, and an alternative to the mainstream parties -- and also by conflating general immigration fears with Euroscepticism.

In any case, Cameron's efforts to hold his party and voting base together -- through immigration reform promises and by announcing the EU referendum -- have backfired in several ways. By talking tough on the EU membership and immigration, he has legitimized UKIP's agenda, bringing it into the mainstream and increasing its support. He also failed to placate his own party's righter wing, and he has made himself look weak in the process, playing into UKIP's narrative that mainstream politicians can't be trusted.

Ben Ward, deputy director of Human Rights Watch, observed that many fringe nationalist parties in Europe have made gains partly due to the actions of the mainstream parties.

"One of the concerns [we have] about the response of the mainstream political parties to the rise of these extremist parties and particularly their electoral success," he told the Voice of Russia radio station, "is that they have often responded to this phenomenon by aping, in a moderated way, the rhetoric of the extremist parties, and also by embracing the voted down, but nonetheless recognizable versions of their policies, I think with the idea that this will draw support away from these parties."

If this is what Cameron was attempting, it did not work. In May's local elections, UKIP's support surged, averaging 26 percent of the vote in county wards. The gains were made in mostly Conservative areas. While their presence and influence in national politics is still minimal (the elections were for local authorities), their momentum has been boosted by a disproportionate amount of media coverage.

Conservative minister and former justice secretary Kenneth Clarke warned in August 2012 that if Cameron gave in to the right-wing core by emulating UKIP, the Conservative party would find itself on the wrong side of public opinion and be kept out of government for a "long spell."

But it's not just the voters Cameron has to worry about. He recently faced a revolt in his own party, with as many as 116 conservative MPs voting for a motion criticizing the immigration speech for omitting the EU referendum plans. He is now under pressure to bring the referendum forward. Some prominent Conservative activists have already defected to UKIP over the EU issues and over allegations that a prominent party member referred to the more right-leaning factions of the party as "swivel-eyed loons."

Former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe wrote in the Observer newspaper that by putting EU membership on the table and making clear that he opposed the current membership terms, Cameron has "opened a Pandora's box politically and seems to be losing control of his party in the process." In an open letter, business leaders accused Cameron of sacrificing the "national interest" to protect his party from further UKIP defections.


While the cases are obviously very different, the U.K. and the United States' immigration debates are similar on this point at least: the facts behind immigration don't feature much in either debate.

The Pew Research Center found that in the United States, illegal immigration has been slowing since 2007 and net migration from Mexico is now at zero. In the United Kingdom, illegal immigration has decreased, but concern over the issue has not. An IPSOS Mori poll found that 34 percent of Britons say immigration is the most important issue facing Britain -- second only to the economy -- the highest level in three years. This is despite the fact that the rate of immigration decreased dramatically last year, with net migration falling from 242,000 in 2011 to 153,000 in 2012, according to Mark Harper, the immigration minister.

"Yet this news has done nothing to stem the tide of defections to UKIP -- mainly from the [Conservatives] but now, increasingly, from Labour and the [Liberal Democrats]," wrote polling group YouGov's president, Peter Kellner, attributing the increased concern over the issue to Cameron keeping it in the headlines by repeatedly stating that immigration was too high under Labour.

It is still unclear how the U.K. government intends to implement the immigration measures, or whether they will be in place before January 2014, when existing restrictions for Romanians and Bulgarians working in the U.K. will be lifted. European leaders have characterized the measures as "unfortunate" and against the spirit of the Union. The proposal has also been criticized for its potential effect on business and on families -- foreign nationals with British partners will face more obstacles in settling there. British universities also fear that the brightest international students will look elsewhere.

Cameron has taken a gamble for his party, but so far it hasn't paid off. A recent poll shows mainstream parties are still struggling to make headway: support for Labour is at 36 percent, for the Conservatives 27 percent -- and UKIP is not far behind, at 20 percent.

The two immigration bills also present very different fates for the two nations: Cameron may lose the next election, but his efforts to hold his party together could lead to the U.K. changing far more than Cameron -- or the country -- was prepared for.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., the danger is that that the reform bill will not pass, and nothing about the current immigration picture will change.