I woke up this morning to find I had been branded “good immigration” by the government. What a relief.
In his speech to Conservative Party members today, the Prime Minister said he believed politicians’ role should be to “cut through the extremes of [the immigration] debate and approach the subject sensibly and reasonably.” He wanted, he said, “good immigration, not mass immigration”. He even went so far as to acknowledge that immigrants made a huge contribution to Britain. I should be happy, right?
Not so much. Cameron wants us to believe that he has a holistic, joined-up policy on immigration, but his rhetoric on the subject is as disjointed, confused and pandering to the lowest common xenophobic denominator as the next guy’s.
One often-brandished key word in what passes for a debate on immigration is “integration”; and the favourite way of measuring “integration” is whether/how well someone speaks English. In the Prime Minister’s own words,
when there have been significant numbers of new people arriving in neighbourhoods, perhaps not able to speak the same language as those living there, on occasions not really wanting or even willing to integrate, that has created a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods.
And yet, this government which claims to be so keen on us immigrants learning English is cutting crucial funding for ESL classes, meaning many immigrants will no longer be able to to afford to learn the language.
This same government, which has a stated ambition of being the most family-friendly government in UK history, is now proposing to clamp down on the family immigration route. If you are under 21, you will not be able to join your spouse in the UK; if your spouse is an undergraduate student, you won’t be able to join them; if your English is judged to not be satisfactory, tough luck – you’re staying at home, and nevermind the fact that you’d learn it so much faster if you were in this country! One can’t help but wonder if that last restriction will apply to the spouses of people coming in on the new entrepreneur visa – essentially a “buy yourself into Britain” scheme. It seems the government gets to pick and choose which families it wants to be friendly to.
The section on permanent settlement is particularly… unsettling. Having harped on about how we should all integrate or else, Cameron suddenly turns around and says that “it cannot be right that people coming to fill short-term skill gaps can stay long-term”. Combined with the stated aim to “select and attract the world’s brightest to our shores”, this should give you a good idea of how the Conservative party regards immigrants: not as human beings with emotions, lives, attachments to people and places, but as spare parts who can be shipped in and out of the country as and when the “market” sees fit. Huge contribution or not, we’ve been put on notice – we can be kicked out any time our skills are no longer deemed sufficiently rare or useful. Does this give immigrants an incentive to integrate; to form relationships and contribute to British society? Hardly, if next time your visa comes up for renewal you may be told to leave all that behind you.
The coup de grâce of the speech, however, is the assertion that
immigration and welfare reform are two sides of the same coin. Put simply, we will never control immigration properly unless we tackle welfare dependency.
And there we have it, the two mortal enemies of the Daily Mail reader – filthy foreigners and benefits scroungers – inextricably linked for all to see. Only a Conservative government can rid us of both.
How is an immigrant – “good” or otherwise – supposed to feel about this speech? Happy that our contribution to British society has been at least acknowledged, however briefly and fleetingly? Motivated to continue contributing, to “integrate”? Perhaps Mr. Cameron secretly hopes that none of us speak English well enough to understand what he said.
If the Conservative Party really finds us so loathsome, I would like their leader to come out and say it. If, however, the contribution immigrants make to this country on a daily basis is truly valued as Mr. Cameron claims, and if “integration” is truly desired, then I have a few suggestions for the government:
- Cut the anti-immigrant rhetoric. You dedicated ten lines out of a seven-page speech to our contribution, and the rest of it to how to keep others like us out and ship some of those of us already here off this island again. Either I am valued or I am not. This tells me I am not.
- Bite the bullet and educate the public. Stop pandering to the lowest common denominator – that is easy. Challenging prejudice, taking the time to explain what immigrants do, how they contribute and why immigration is important to this country is hard. But in the long run it might lead to the kind of social cohesiveness you claim to value.
- It is easy to say immigrants should integrate. Some of us find this easier than others. Reaching out a helping hand, being proactively inclusive, can only make this process of integration easier for everyone involved. That includes funding ESL tuition, but there are also other things you can do. Mr. Cameron is apparently fond of street parties. Maybe we can have some street parties to celebrate immigrants’ contribution to the UK and get to know our immigrant neighbours? Go on, I’ll even make baklava!
- Finally, how about creating a vision of a Britain that immigrants find inspirational and want to contribute to and be integrated in? A Britain that is open, tolerant, and inclusive? Maybe one day, I guess.