NO DOUBT the new Immigration Minister, Phil Woolas, was appointed on the basis that he would raise the temperature of the immigration debate. So he has done, declaring that it has been too easy to get into Britain, and that he will change that.
This has delighted Frank Field and Migration Watch: at last, they say, the Government has had the courage to “advocate policies most strongly supported by Labour’s core supporters”. These new tough measures are being planned, we are told, to prevent a threat of overpopulation and racial tension.
At last, declares Mr Field, New Labour will confound the idealists, especially the clergy, who are “hopeless at doing politics” (Letters, 17 October) because they do not stay with declaring ideals (being “lights on the hill”) and should leave the tough realities (being “yeast in the dough”) to politicians; it is “unacceptable” to seek to do both, he writes.
Yet none of this talk of tough policies is quite as unfamiliar as we are invited to believe. Mr Woolas and Mr Field may not use the classical rhetoric of Enoch Powell, but the message is the same.
Not only that: the period since the “rivers of blood” speech has been marked not by making it easy to get into Britain, but by the opposite. The suggestion that we have an “open-door” policy is outrageous, given the desperate experiences of many would-be immigrants, including many fleeing torture, oppression, and dire poverty.
As for the idealistic opponents of these tough policies — the clerics and others who are told to stay on their hill shining their light — it might be worth noticing that most campaigners for more generous immigration policies do not do so out of abstract commitment. Many speak out of direct pastoral experience with asylum-seekers. They are dealing with the tough reality of people reduced to the destitution that the Government has brought about in order to make Britain less hospitable and reduce the flow of immigrants (Comment, 17 October).
The experience of congregations in some of our poorest churches is not of being lights on hills, but rather workers in church halls, night shelters, and food-distribution centres, the only recourse of many who are the victims of our tough immigration policies — already.
MR FIELD invites us in his letter to look at the implications of not having a tough immigration policy: I suggest that having one has implications, too, which its advocates do not mention. I am all too aware of the growth of detention, the other instrument of toughness.
Independent Monitoring Boards are charged to check up on “fairness and respect” for people in custody, including those held in our immigration removal centres and short-term holding facilities at ports and airports, which are becoming like prisons in all but name. As president of their National Council, I hear boards talk about the children we lock up; about others separated from their parents; about prisoners who have served their sentences, but are detained for indefinite periods pending deportation; about detainees made ill by the experience.
Those who advocate “tougher” immigration policies are accountable for the coercive instruments — the destitution and the detention — that are already being used and will be used even more to enforce it.
WE ARE WARNED that it is our native urban poor who have consistently borne the cost of the “easy” immigration policies that we are said to have. Of course, it is the poorest who bear the most cost of social dislocation, as everything from street crime to the credit crunch shows, for the simple reasons that wealthier people are in a position to choose communities and schools in which they will be protected from those costs.
Yet it is not immigrants who should be punished for that. And the social costs of migration (unlike the social benefits) actually fall most heavily on even poorer people still, citizens of countries that are next to war zones, natural disasters, and civil conflict. For them, the consequences of closed borders in Europe will be even more severe than they are already.
If practical implications are what we are being asked to consider, then let us consider all of them, and remember that “tougher” policies will impact even more on some who have already suffered greatly: victims of torture, women who have been trafficked, children of rejected immigrants, and on nations whose people are among the poorest of the earth.
WE COULD SAY to Mr Field’s “core Labour supporters” that we need policies and actions that address their concerns, and many of the same clergy and lay activists are involved in that. But we shall want to maintain that all that the Immigration Minister is saying has been said before; and that what is now proposed will involve more destitute people on the streets and more held in expensive custody.
Also, as the custody estate grows, most growth will accrue to private companies under contract to the Government, which have a vested interest in the expanded use of custody. It is the children of our cities who will predominantly supply their customers.
And we shall say that migration is a global issue, occasioned by war, poverty, and famine. It needs addressing by international agreement and development aid — not by the illusion that we can solve our own problem without having an impact on others.
We might even dare to say something else: that in the context of a Europe whose citizens already have freedom of access, any “tougher” immigration policies will most affect non-EU immigrants — which means overwhelmingly those from Asia and Africa. You will not keep that racial bias out of the consciousness of already alienated minority-ethnic communities in this country, so that getting tough on immigrants will also bring disturbance to our cities.
Times of international economic crisis have made suspicion of foreigners attractive many times before, as they are in Europe now — but with disastrous results. So we need to resist this latest set of proposals because we know the destitution and imprisonment they will imply. We need to resist them now, before the old barbarisms return to overwhelm us.
Dr Peter Selby is President of the National Council of Independent Monitoring Boards, and a former Bishop of Worcester.