To challenge the Conservatives's anti-immigration politics, the left must reject the idea that people's right to move should be contingent on how much they earnby Maya Goodfellow / February 21, 2020 / Leave a comment
Every time I see a politician or newspaper headline mention immigration, I think about how it would sound if you replaced the word “migrants” or “workers” with “people.” A “swarm of migrants” becomes a “swarm of people;” “no visas for low-skilled workers” is “no visas for low-skilled people.”
It’s dehumanising. Whenever immigration is treated as a problem or stronger borders are demanded, it’s important to remember that it’s people on the receiving end of policy and rhetoric. It’s people who are being talked about and people who are subjected to bordering policies; people who happened to be born in one country, into a particular set of circumstances and who, because of immigration policies, won’t be able to move to this country if they want or need to. This is what I thought when I read the Conservative Party’s immigration proposals unveiled this week. Under their plans, people they dismiss as “low skilled” will find it hard to get here; people who, they determine, don’t speak English “well enough.”
The dial has turned so far in the direction of anti-immigration politics that so much of our dehumanising discourse on migration is treated as reasonable. But when you ignore the noise of UK politics and the cries that “this is what people voted for,” what these plans are essentially compounding is a system in which your ability to move around the world is decided by your class and your race, and the UK is going to deepen and solidify this very system.
The UK’s immigration fees, which are “are among the highest in the world,” are barely mentioned at all in the Tory immigration plans. People will continue to be charged exorbitant amounts just to come and to stay in this country. Furthermore, the income thresholds—which require people to earn a certain amount before they can to move to —remain firmly in place. The message is: if you don’t have “enough” money or the “right” skills, you can’t come here. Peoples’ worth, their value and whether they can move to the UK in a safe and legal way (and the rights they can access if they do) are being decided in line with how much they earn and their “skills.”
This is all added to a litany of callousness. Only a few months into office, Boris Johnson’s government has already made immigration one of their defining issues. They have deported people they class as a “threat” because they’re “foreign national offenders.” They have further tried to deport people whose asylum claims haven’t been processed, and strip away the rights of unaccompanied child refugees, making worse a situation in which more than 10,000 minors have been forced to make life-threatening journeys just to get here to join family.
A fair amount of these “new” policies are reheated from the past few decades of UK politics, from the promise to introduce an “Australian-style points-based system” through to enforcing English language requirements. Though they’re now being extended to EU migrants—who will be brought into a system that is already deeply unfair to non-EU migrants—both were talked about and “introduced” to varying degrees in the New Labour years. Recognising that these are mainstays of immigration debate doesn’t mean we should underestimate the damaging and dangerous new forms of exclusion, cruelty and racialisation that this Conservative government with its 80-seat majority can create. But we have to realise this didn’t come out of nowhere. Rather, there has been complicity across parts of the political spectrum in creating a long-term hostile environment for migrants.
So much of this isn’t only about the Tories at all; it’s about how the left responds to these policies and imagines different worlds altogether. People might tweak around the edges of this system and the thinking that underpins it, but it is too rarely taken on in its entirety. Too much of the discussion on race and migration seems fixed. It’s accepted on some level that immigration has to be “controlled;” that there is only “so much” the public will accept.
The proposals that people must speak English before they come to this country is, after years of being treated as such, pitched as a perfectly reasonable demand. But so many of us wouldn’t be here if this demand that people “speak English on arrival” were asked of our parents or grandparents. So many people around the world—including the 5.5 million British nationals who live abroad—would find it difficult to move somewhere if the same “national language” rule was applied everywhere.
There is nothing inevitable about anti-immigration politics. Any challenge to Tory policies or mainstream thinking on migration should take this as its starting point—this and centring people’s humanity regardless of their nationality or immigration status.
To challenge Tory anti-immigration politics, the left must reject the idea that people’s right to be here should be contingent on how much they earn or their English. One of the problems is how people have been dehumanised and racialised. This has taken such a hold that it feels necessary to say: people are people, not just “economic contributors.” But this is where the fight against Tory immigration policy needs to begin.