Immigration was at the heart of the campaign in the U.K. to leave the European Union—though it was by no means the only issue—and when the votes were ultimately counted, a comfortable majority, 52 percent to 48 percent, chose to leave the bloc.
“The political message from the referendum is for more control on
immigration,” Will Somerville, the U.K. senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, told me. “And that's a very clear message.” But what’s not clear yet is whether and how that message will actually result in significant reductions to immigration into the U.K.
Indeed, the message had already been clear for a long time. As Reihan Salam pointed out in Slate last week, starting in 1997, Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, presided over a transformation of immigration into the U.K.
“Over the following years, roughly twice as many immigrants arrived in the United Kingdom as had arrived in the previous half-century,” Salam wrote. “Many who arrived during that earlier era hailed from the Caribbean and South Asia, and by the early 1990s, 7 percent of England and Wales’ population belonged to ethnic minorities. By now, that share has grown to over 14 percent.”
That transformation, coupled with unfettered immigration from EU member states, evoked responses ranging in intensity from mild anxiety and desire for controlled immigration to outright xenophobia and insistence that all immigration stop (though many people also welcomed the newcomers). Starting in 2010, David Cameron, now the outgoing British prime minister, tried to apply stricter controls to non-EU immigration into the U.K. But the results weren’t what had been expected: The government’s rules did not apply to family unifications, international students, and high-skilled workers who came to the U.K. with a job offer. Last year, the number of immigrants who came into the U.K. to stay for a year or more was 300,000, roughly split between EU and non-EU citizens.