Tuesday 25 February 2020 6:14 am

If we want better immigration policies, we first need better immigration debates

It seems odd to suggest that we should talk more about immigration.

It is the policy area which attracts perhaps the most wide-ranging and outraged of political commentary, and was undeniably a key driver in the vote to leave the European Union. 

Yet the quality of the debate, concerned primarily with numbers and rules, has been poor — meaning so too have the policy decisions. 

As a country, we have failed to decide what we think of immigration. Not simply whether we want more or less of it, but why we want any of it at all. The result is uneasy alliances, a public that feels ignored, and policies which please no one. 

Many view immigration in purely economic terms. Imported workers come here to do what Britons cannot or will not. By filling these jobs, they drive the economy forward. The most useful immigrants pay taxes and are young, fit, healthy and family-less enough to place little burden on the state. 

This approach also encourages a natural counter: that the economic effect of migrants is overstated, and that they take jobs in the place of native workers or demand resources that they do not replace.

It follows from both sides of this thinking that the rules should encourage the most profitable migrants for UK Plc. Skills and income levels come to the fore, weighed against those who have dependents or a need for state support. Even the most hardline opponent of immigration would likely open the door to financiers and footballers. 

Adjacent to this sits a wholly different political worldview: those who view immigration as a cultural and moral good. This stretches far beyond the desire to accommodate people fleeing acute persecution, but sees it as an act of cruelty to turn almost anyone away. The enrichment of multiculturalism and the milieu of open borders is a self-justifying good. 

The leftists in this group reject any sort of skill or salary-based restriction as rapaciously capitalist, while the remainder consider themselves neoliberals who would cast open the borders for the markets to decide. 

Against them stands another group who see immigration in purely cultural terms, but in a negative light.

These are not simply ugly nationalists and thugs with “Enoch was Right” lapel badges. There are real questions about importing individuals with views about gender or sexuality which do not accord with modern Britain. Equally, others may question what happens to a society which is no longer brought together by common experiences or even a shared language.

In the midst of this divide, it has been hard to create a popular and pragmatic approach to immigration.

Economic-based policies are criticised both as globalist attacks on British workers and for the reduction of migrants to an inhuman monetary value. The cultural narrative sees any attempt to control or manage immigration as unkind on those around the world who may wish to make the UK their home. 

It is time for a broader, more honest discussion about what we expect from immigration and what purpose we want policies to serve. We must accept that any option has political and practical downsides, and think about how we either mitigate them or sell them as an acceptable trade-off. 

It is also important to make arguments across this divide. 

Those who see migrants as a route to economic success need to accept that people’s lives stretch beyond the black and red of a balance sheet. People fall in love across national boundaries, or might just buy a one-way ticket with little more than a dream to their name. 

Those who focus on the cultural value of migration must also accept the economic and political realities that constrain it — that the public are unlikely to tolerate funding penniless migrants, or that the perception of jobs being filled at the expense of the existing population needs to be managed.  

The government must, with its newfound freedom to craft a post-Brexit immigration policy, embrace both sides of this debate. As the points-based system is assembled, it must consider how immigrants contribute and affect both the economic and cultural aspects of this country. Otherwise, it will be attacked from all sides. 

Freedom of movement under the EU treaties created clear losers and absurdities. It excluded talented non-Europeans, especially those from the Commonwealth who could have integrated well with Britain and contributed much. It prioritised a sense of European brotherhood which many in Britain found alien, while placing greater burdens on Canadians, Australians or Kiwis, and the relatives of previous generations of Commonwealth migrants. 

Brexit allows us to reset not only our immigration policy, but also the debates around it. In doing so, it is vital to remember that it is about more than the economy, stupid.

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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