First, and as a matter of context: I am an immigrant. I was born and raised in Colorado, USA, and have lived in the UK for the last 5 years or so. My national identity, however, is a more complicated matter. I resonate politically better with Britain than the United States. I admire more British personages than American (probably due to the fact that the only great Americans I can think to name are either dead or long dead…). I laugh at British comedians, and listen to Radio 4. I queue. I share the occasional withering glance with my fellow public transport passengers whenever a tourist declares loudly that something is cute or quaint. I even say: “Oh, excuse me, sorry” when someone else runs into me at Sainsburys, and I say “Cheers” or “Ta” even when someone should be thanking me.
This has put me in an interesting position at times. I have been part of conversations when the other party doesn’t actually know, or momentarily forgets, that I grew up singing The Star-Spangled Banner before watching baseball.
“Well, I think Americans are rude and ignorant”.
“Oh?” I say.
“Yes, they’re always going on about how small everything is and they don’t know where Somerset is.”
“I know where Somerset is, and I have been asked where Shropshire is by Londoners,” I reply.
“Oh, but you’re different. You’re not really American. You don’t have an accent… and you’re don’t think I’m cute.
Immigration in the UK
I get the feeling that many mainstream British ideas are fairly far removed from immigrants as people. There is a distinct themness about immigrants, and I think this notion is exploited by politicians and commentators who have to justify their cynical existences. Over the past five years, I have learned that immigration is ranked among education and health in the national psyche, and politicians who want need to be seen doing something can easily turn to immigration policy for support. This national concern for immigration is baffling. According to the National Statistics Office, less than 10% of the UK population were foreign born in 2006. (In the US, for the same year the number was nearly 14%). So, less than one in ten people in the UK are foreign born, and even fewer of those have recourse to public funds, yet this ranks among Education and Health?
I can see that there is cause for thought, cause for discussion, but not cause for concern. A study for the OECD stated: “the ratio of immigrants (no matter how defined) has grown steadily in all Western European countries considered, except Belgium.”1 So, immigration is definitely on the rise, and I don’t debate that. However, most of them have the sense not to move to Belgium so they can’t be all bad. The flip side of this is that immigration has actually increased the UK economic growth rate, according to the TUC. There is, I feel, cause for concern in that the general public does not understand immigration all that well as outlined by a brilliant article from the sometimes-inflammatory Independent: “Lies, Damned Lies and Immigration”.
Now, what has really got me angry is the new scheme from Jacqui Smith, Home Secretary, that immigrants will have to work harder to “earn their right to become UK citizens”. (Press Coverage: Telegraph, Guardian, Times and BBC) and it includes increasing the time before a migrant can be naturalised and an increased fee. Gordon Brown has also mentioned, according to Radio 4 reports and the Times (see link above) that immigrants should have to undertake community service to be introduced to the British Way of Life.
Let me explore that a bit:
It costs a fortune to immigrate to the UK. I am American, and chose to move to the UK for love –my wife is British. I like it here, but it is an expensive place to live. Tax is high, services are expensive, and it is required of an Immigrant to pay large sums of money every few years. I should mention that I have been paying UK income tax and national insurance despite being unable to access public funds for some of my immigration journey and that I attended a UK university after marrying and immigrating, and paid full fees (during the time, around £9k/year) so none of my education was subsidised by any taxes I have paid.
The cost of visas and fees is high, indeed. There is a cost for the initial visiting Visa to get married (currently £500) which lets you stay here for 6 months, without recourse to public funds. You then must apply for temporary residency (£395) which lasts for a couple years. Then, if you want indefinite leave to remain (and if you don’t, you’ll need to sort out alternative accommodation fast) it will cost you £750. I’ve paid each of them, one after the other every few months or years. The total: £1645, and I’m still not a citizen. If I want to become one, I still have to pay £9.99 for a book on what it means to be British (Ha!), £34 to take a citizenship test (which most UK citizens can’t actually pass) and a massive £655 for the application. Then I’d be invited to attend a citizenship ceremony at which I will be required to pledge an oath, and I haven’t found out if that costs me more yet… new total? £2343.99, and Jacqui Smith wants more. I see this as a combination of four distinct ideas, blended in a dangerous cocktail:
- A genuine need for money to run immigration services
- A cash-cow for a cash-greedy government
- A political scapegoat for opportunistic political figures
- A Protection Racket, where people who are legally seeking residence are exploited with the threat of having their life plans crushed
British Way of Life
What, exactly did Gordon Brown mean when he said he was thinking of having immigrants doing more in the community? I am assuming he did not mean most of the plumbing, or supplementing the taxes for an aging population. For clarity, let me say that these proposed changes will have no effect on the most discussed group of migrants: Eastern Europeans. They already have access to the country through the EU and do not need to pay all the clearance fees. So, making all the non EU migrants do community service will help them to understand what it means to be British? I would have thought a crash-course in happy slapping or under-aged drinking would have been more apt. How many British people do you know who do community service?The most illuminating illustration I heard about the preposterousness of this was a commentator on Radio 4 who pointed out that Abu Hamza (hook-handed, one-eyed favourite of the Sun headlines and controversial fundamentalist cleric of Finsbury Park mosque) could have been said to have been active in his community, and undertook volunteer work. Gordon Brown’s government has already implemented a Britishness test (see link in previous paragraph) which is so patronising and oblique I don’t know what it is for. Some of the facts you are expected to know (Taken directly off the test site):
- Where have migrants come from in the past and why? What sort of work have they done?
- Do women have equal rights in voting, education and work, and has this always been the case? (What does this have to do with Britishness? Do we need to know that we were tardy giving women the vote, that there is still a disgraceful gender pay gap or that women are under-represented in all aspects of public society? Surely we don’t want Migrants thinking about that too much?)
- When do children take tests at school? How many go on to higher education? (This changes every couple years, drastically.)
- Do many children live in single parent families or step-families? (Any ideas? Have a guess…2,672,000 [Update: now a broken link] dependent children in single parent families, according to the National Statistics Office. Bet you didn’t know that.)
- How many people belong to an ethnic minority and which are the largest minority groups? Where are there large ethnic communities?
- And finally, my favourite: Where are Geordie, Cockney and Scouse dialects spoken? (I’d have said North London, where you can hear quite a few more than that, just on one street!)
Is one extra year without citizenship going to make any difference to society? The people who want to become citizens have already been inundated with extortionate fees, made to feel unwelcome, and made to wait for more than 5 years for a passport and the right to vote. These people are already here, and cannot have broken any residence laws anyway. It will not effect illegal immigrants, assylum seekers, EU Immigrants, Non-doms (stupid name that sounds like condom every time a news-reader says it!) or terrorists. They will have been working and paying tax, and are likely to work in jobs not filled by Britain’s workforce anyway (According to TUC report). One more year without representation or a passport is an easy way for Jacqui Smith to appear tougher on immigration without changing the numbers at all. It is a meaningless gesture, which only benefits a small number of wealthy politicians seeking to look tough and adds months of difficulty for normal people.
1: “Labour market outcomes of natives and immigrants: Evidence from the European Community Household Panel”, Franco Peracchi and Domenico Depalo, OECD, 2006, p1, Quoted from TUC paper on Immigration, see hyperlink within text.