In UK’s Heated Debate Over Immigration, Ministers Avoid Using The A-Word

LONDON — Will President Obama’s plans for “comprehensive immigration reform,” centred on a “pathway” to “earned citizenship” for 11 million undocumented immigrants, inspire British politicians to unveil similar proposals here?

In the UK, the number of undocumented immigrants has been estimated to be anywhere between 500,000 and 1.1 million. The much-maligned UK Border Agency is attempting to clear a massive backlog of cases of some 320,000 people — the equivalent of the population of Iceland.

Yet ministers studiously refuse to talk of reform, which has been criticized as “amnesty”: to be seen as “soft” on immigration, illegal or otherwise, is considered the kiss of death in modern British politics.

Here, the debate over immigration reform revolves around devising new and ingenious ways of keeping people out of the country — for example, the government’s “cap” on the number of immigrants allowed into the UK from outside the European Union, or the ongoing war on “bogus” foreign students from the Indian subcontinent —- rather than legalising the status of undocumented people who are inside the country (a process known as “regularisation”).

And Fortress Britain is, of course, part of Fortress Europe; across the continent, governments have erected an increasing number of hurdles and barriers to try and limit immigration into the EU from North Africa and the Middle East while far-right parties have exploited a growing fear of foreigners to make substantive electoral gains.

“Globally, European countries stand out as having a negative attitude towards immigration (and Britain especially so),” wrote Ben Page, chief executive of pollsters Ipsos MORI, earlier this year, “and this appears to be linked to economic stagnation, high unemployment and public-sector cuts providing a framework in which immigrants are likely to be seen as a drain on limited resources and a threat to limited opportunities.”

Nonetheless, there have been a few attempts to buck the trend. In December 2011, the Polish government announced a relief for an estimated 7,000 undocumented immigrants.

Here in the UK, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg —- prior to entering into coalition with the Conservatives and being elevated to deputy prime minister —- said he wanted to “regularise” the status of undocumented immigrants and bring them “out of the shadows”; his party’s 2010 manifesto pledged to “allow people who have been in Britain without the correct papers for ten years … to earn their citizenship.”

Influential Labour MP Jon Cruddas, now in charge of his party’s policy review, is also on record backing deportation relief for undocumented foreign workers who have been in the UK for a long time.

Remarkably, so too is the Conservative mayor of London, Boris Johnson. “If an immigrant has been here for a long time and there is no realistic prospect of returning them, then I do think that person’s condition should be regularised so that they can pay taxes and join the rest of society,” he has said in the past. (The capital is thought to be home to more than two-thirds of the country’s undocumented immigrants.)

But it would be a mistake to assume that relief for undocumented in the UK is around the corner. “In the U.S., ‘comprehensive immigration reform’ brings together a broad alliance of business and unions, human rights and race advocates and universities; and advocates have built an argument that two-thirds of Americans back by putting effective borders, a path to citizenship, and enforcement of labour market standards together,” says Sunder Katwala, founder and director of the British Future think tank. This contrasts with the UK, he explains, where “advocacy is fragmented.”

Reform is also deeply unpopular —- hence the reluctance of most mainstream politicians to utter the A-word. Poll after poll shows the public supports deportation of undocumented immigrants, no matter how expensive or impractical such measures may be, rather than “amnesties” or “regularisation.” As Katwala observes, “The 2010 election, where the LibDems came under fire over amnesty, showed that there is a very long way to go to build public support and consent, and to offer credible reassurance that it would be a one-off to sort an effective system out, not the first in a series of amnesties seeming to create an open door policy for all.”

Few would pretend that there is anything resembling a “liberal” majority on immigration in the UK: A recent YouGov poll for the Sunday Times revealed that 67 percent of the public thinks immigration has been “a bad thing for Britain” and 80 percent support the Conservative-led coalition government’s pledge to reduce net immigration into the UK from the hundreds of thousands to the “tens of thousands.”

Consider, however, the results of YouGov’s latest “issues” poll. When asked which two or three issues were the “most important … facing the country at this time,” the economy came first, cited by 79 percent of the public, while immigration was second, cited by 49 percent. But when asked to rank “the most important issues facing you and your family,” the economy still came first (67 percent) while immigration plummeted to sixth (14 percent), behind health (33 percent), pensions (31 percent) tax (27 percent) and family life (16 percent).

The YouGov poll, incidentally, backs the findings of a recent “State of the Nation” survey conducted by British Future, which found that 19 percent of the public picked immigration as their top local concern while 30 percent put immigration first when asked to think about the tensions facing “British society as a whole.”

As YouGov chairman Peter Kellner points out, “there is a huge gulf between people’s perception of immigration as a national issue, and one that affects their own lives.”

It is this “gulf” that the advocates of deportation relief, and a less draconian approach to immigration as a whole, will have to try and turn to their advantage if they are to secure popular support in the near future. In the meantime, the UK’s undocumented immigrants will continue to remain in the shadows, watching the unfolding debate across the Atlantic with envy.