By David Blunkett, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: David Blunkett is a British Member of Parliament and former Secretary of State for Home Affairs in the cabinet of Tony Blair. The views expressed are his own.
Like the United States, Britain is, in the words of 17th century English author Jonathan Swift, a “mongrel nation” made up of people drawn from across the globe. Our country is enriched, sometimes infuriated, but always renewed by the flow of those seeking a better life, fleeing persecution or just curious about this island off the coast of Europe that punches above its weight internationally.
And yet, just as in America, immigration is a controversial issue. The British are, on the whole, a suspicious people – warmhearted at an individual level, but worried about change and frequently wedded to the idea that things were better when we did it the old-fashioned way.
To an extent, this is understandable in a country that so values tradition. We have a limited land mass, and the economy and population are skewed toward one region – the southeast. Britain is therefore bound to be more suspicious of incomers than a vast nation literally built by “incomers.”
As a result, understanding the fears of those who do not see themselves as beneficiaries of change – economically, socially, culturally and politically – is a pre-requisite for being able to deal with concerns rationally.
Yes, many of those concerned about immigration are also sustained by newcomers to Britain who staff homes for the elderly and frail or work as nurses and care staff at our hospitals and community health facilities. And yes, our rapidly ageing population requires an influx of young, energetic and able people to maintain economic activity and growth and provide for the retirement income of the future.
But the fact is that instability, insecurity and rapid change can in themselves be destabilizing. And while it is easy for globetrotters who routinely experience cultural and linguistic differences firsthand to open their minds to the facts and their hearts to those from different backgrounds, this is more difficult for those whose daily grind is colored by the fear of job loss, the uncertainty of housing or the belief that their hard earned cash is going to support someone else’s lifestyle.
A decade ago, when I was home secretary, the U.K. Treasury highlighted the beneficial impact immigration had on the economy and on the sustainability of public services, as well as the positive contribution it made to public services (in contrast to the commonly held view that immigration is a drain on the public services).
With this in mind, it has been interesting to see how some similar discussions have been playing out in the United States. What is interesting for the U.S. is the very large number of “illegals” in the country whose status is uncertain, exploitability and vulnerability considerable, and whose economic and social contribution often go untapped.
Indeed, it is because of this possibility in Britain that as a cabinet member in Tony Blair’s government whose responsibilities included immigration policy, I felt it better that those joining the European Union from central and Eastern Europe should be allowed to work legally, pay taxes and insurance, and “earn” entitlement to public services. This remains a controversial view, but I remain convinced that difficult as it was, this was the right path to take.
Looking at the issue a decade on, I believe it is imperative that proper preparation is made within the communities most affected by immigration, and that programs are introduced for integration that are welcoming of newcomers, but also recognize the fears I mentioned, while promoting the importance of newcomers learning the language, learning the history and the social norms of the host country, and feeling welcomed. As the secretary of state responsible for introducing citizenship tests and ceremonies to the U.K., as well as a requirement for the English language to be learned by new incomers seeking naturalization, I could and should have gone further.
But while Britain may have some lessons for the United States, I am also interested in the way immigration is often promoted in a positive way that has been lacking in for some time in the U.K.
Take this recent article in the New York Times by David Brooks:
“The forlorn pundit doesn’t even have to make the humanitarian case that immigration reform would be a great victory for human dignity. The cold economic case by itself is so strong.
“Increased immigration would boost the U.S. economy. Immigrants are 30 percent more likely to start new businesses than native-born Americans, according to a research summary by Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney of The Hamilton Project. They are more likely to earn patents. A quarter of new high-tech companies with more than $1 million in sales were also founded by the foreign-born.
…Thanks to the labor of low-skill immigrants, the cost of food, homes and child care comes down, living standards rise and more women can afford to work outside the home.”
Such an upbeat case is rarely if ever made in such forceful tones in Britain.
True, we do have a new organization, British Future, that celebrates the valuable historical contribution migrants have made to our country. But their admirable efforts at encouraging a balanced discussion of the issue sadly go pretty well unheard.
Instead, a vehemently and openly declared anti-immigration “think tank” known as Migration Watch gets airtime and acres of space in our newspapers. True, some of their research is genuinely accurate and challenging. But too much media coverage here is speculation and, regrettably, a sense of paranoia permeates too many of the column inches in Britain’s press (in articles often written, ironically, by people who themselves employ immigrants to clean their homes, repair their boilers or tend to their gardens!)
Having been through these policy discussions myself, I wish America luck and hope it can hold a genuine debate about how to regularize the status of those already resident, one that appreciates the very nature of U.S. society.
But I have one last thought from this “Sceptred Isle,” as Winston Churchill once described it. When we regularized the position of those from Eastern Europe in 2004, it turned out that 40 percent of those supposedly “coming into the country” were actually already here. Now there’s something to think about.