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Britain’s new immigration points system highlights the great divide

February 21, 2020

I’m hesitant to enter the UK immigration debate, because thanks to Priti Patel, the minister responsible for migration policy, it’s such an over-exercised subject at the moment.

But it seems to me that one half of the country sees immigrants as draining the nation of infrastructure and resources for the purpose of taking advantage of our benefit system. The other half is profoundly grateful for the presence of thousands of professionals who keep the National Health Service in business, who care for our elderly and who keep us warm in the winter.

Both are views that tell only part of a mind-numbingly complex story.

I’m doing my best not to frame my thoughts in terms of the Brexit debate, because these arguments have been going on since the Sixties, and I doubt if our proposed points system will resolve them.

For me the most convincing argument against the system as currently proposed is that it is designed to allow fully formed, work-ready people to apply for jobs in areas where there are skills shortages. There is no bias towards youth.

This is an issue that goes well beyond the technocratic, criteria-based solution proposed by the government. By denying entry to the baristas, the cleaners, the warehouse workers and the Uber drivers, we are potentially shutting the door to the drive and ambition that first-generation immigrants often bring to their new country.

If you read Ben Judah’s This is London, you will think of the nation’s capital city as a seething sink of people who arrived here in hope, but have ended up disappointed. Judah writes about ethnic enclaves in London slowly forcing white Londoners out to the margins, about gangs, doss-houses and exhausted Africans on early trains to their cleaning jobs in the city.

As Blake Morrison wrote in his review of the book for the Guardian back in 2016:

Judah might not trust statistics but he weaves them into his narrative, and at the end – in case we don’t trust them – he gives the sources, mostly from government surveys. In 40 years the percentage of white British in London has fallen from 86% to 45%; 600,000 of those in London are there illegally; the number of Africans would fill a city the size of Sheffield; 57% of births are to migrant mothers. A gun is fired on average every six hours; 96% of London’s prostitutes are migrants, as are 60% of its carers. This is London, Judah insists: multitudinous and multi-ethnic. Or – less an assertion of truth than an expression of incredulity – This is London?

If he had been writing the review today, he might also have mentioned knife crime, which has significantly added to the narrative of a city broken by immigration.

Though Judah’s book is sympathetic and compassionate towards the protagonists he meets, it can only have added to the negative perception of immigrants that drove the Leave vote in 2016 and the election last year of Britain’s most right-wing government in recent memory.

And yet we have perhaps forgotten that within the teeming suburbs, where immigrants, illegal or otherwise, scratch a living, you will almost certainly find people driven by an ambition that will lead them to success, if not for themselves, certainly for their children.

Read this Twitter thread from Alex Andreou, and you will hear from people whose parents settled in the UK with nothing, and who certainly would not have met the points criteria. These stories are about success and contribution to their new country.

The narrative of the immigrant who works all hours to make something of themselves isn’t so popular in the UK, yet it rings true. The classic story is of the Ugandan Asian refugee who opened a corner shop in the 70s and whose children ended up becoming doctors, lawyers and accountants. But it’s much wider than that. If you go through Andreou’s thread you will hear from EU citizens prospering too.

I know this from experience. One of our dearest friends came from Croatia in the 90’s. She has built a good life for herself. As a nurse, she may or may not have met the today’s entry criteria. But Britain would have been the poorer without her paediatric intensive care expertise.

So the question is, among those who will be excluded under the new rules, how many baristas and Uber drivers might have gone on to college and found companies? How many Polish plumbers might have moved from self-employment into running their own businesses that employ Brits as well as Poles?

If we deny the young, ambitious migrant who for one reason or another doesn’t make the points, we will never know.

Aside from the youth issue, I can think of other technical objections to the points system. One of them is that it offers applicants no option for self-employment, a mode of working that has massively increased over the past three decades. I can see the rise of “employers” whose only purpose is to offer work-arounds that allow their “employees” to work autonomously. Anyone who has spent time in Saudi Arabia will know all about the Saudi sponsors who became wealthy by receiving a rent from foreign workers merely for providing them with a cloak of legitimacy.

The new rules will probably also impact the zero hours culture by cutting the supply of workers who are prepared to work on this basis. If labour is at a premium, how many people will still be prepared to work on the basis that they have no guarantee of a stable income? That would be fine by me, because I regard zero hours as a recipe not for flexibility but for employer exploitation. But do we accept that conventional employment comes at a cost, and are we prepared to pay the price that will inevitably be passed on to the consumer?

Change is inevitable, not least because the immigration system is broken and those who administer it have shown themselves to be at times callous, incompetent or overwhelmed. But it will also happen because those who elected the current government are convinced in large numbers that immigration is a Bad Thing. They need to be satisfied that the government is trying to address their concerns.

The immigrant narrative is of course much stronger in the United States. In a country where all but a few are immigrants or descendants of immigrants, it’s easy to find examples of billionaires, presidents and Nobel Prize winners who can trace their lineage back to people who arrived on a boat with nothing. The pioneer spirit, powered by immigration and encapsulated in the American Dream, is built into America’s cultural DNA despite Trump’s efforts to pander to those who are threatened by it.

Not so in the UK, which also owes much to immigration. For one half of the country, they are an inconvenience at best and a threat to a perceived way of life at worst.

For the other half, in which I include myself, they are our future. We can’t accommodate everybody who wants to live in our country, but we should think very carefully about those whom we propose to exclude, in case we shut the door on those with the greatest drive and energy, who have the courage to leave behind familial roots, and upon whom we as a nation may well depend for our prosperity generations from now.

From → Business, Politics, Social, UK

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