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The U.K.’s Honest Immigration Debate
In places like Britain, the debate’s a lot broader. Do we even want more legal immigrants?


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Andrew Stiles

The immigration-reform debate in Washington is often cast as a struggle between those favoring a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants on one side and those who oppose it on the other — with little debate over what else comprehensive legislation might mean.

For example, there has been surprisingly little discussion about the Gang of Eight’s proposed changes regarding legal immigration, which would result in 16 million more legal immigrants over the next ten years, almost double the number projected under current law. Never mind that only 23 percent of Americans (and just 29 percent of Democrats) favor increasing immigration levels, according to a recent Gallup survey. Or the fact that, because many of the new arrivals would be low-skilled workers, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that the Gang of Eight bill would reduce average wages and increase unemployment over the next decade. Proponents bristle at or simply ignore the suggestion that passing such legislation in the middle of a fragile economic recovery, in which low-skilled workers have already suffered disproportionately, might not be the wisest move.

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The United States has managed to avoid a meaningful discussion of these issues (to the delight of the Gang’s supporters, one reckons), but other countries are debating immigration reform in a far more open fashion, and in ways that some Americans might find unsettling.

In the United Kingdom, for instance, pollsters have long been asking questions that have been largely absent from the immigration debate in the U.S., such as whether or not members of the public “think that it is wrong for the U.K. to recruit from overseas while a million young people are struggling to find jobs” — three in four said yes. As far as I can tell, only NumbersUSA, a group that favors “lower immigration levels” and is often described as “nativist” by liberal groups, has sought to gauge public support for a dramatic influx of low-skilled workers, as proposed by the Gang of Eight, and whether or not this would help the economy. As it turns out, most voters opposed the idea and thought it would be harmful.

British lawmakers of every political stripe discuss immigration in relatively frank terms. Nick Clegg, leader of the left-wing Liberal Democrats, is reconsidering his party’s stance on “earned citizenship” — a phrase often used by the Gang of Eight and its supporters — amid concerns that granting citizenship to certain illegal immigrants might not be “feasible or desirable” given the current economic climate, and could undermine public trust in the immigration system.

In May, Labour leader Ed Miliband apologized on behalf of his party for its lax immigration policies in the past. “Low-skill migration has been too high and we need to bring it down,” he said.

Conservative immigration minister Mark Harper recently said that future immigrants to the U.K. “must be working, studying, or self-sufficient.” “Those who are tempted to come here and try and abuse public services should know that we are not a soft touch,” he explained.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., attempts by some conservatives in Congress to raise questions about the long-term costs of welfare use by current and future low-skilled immigrants are casually dismissed, if not scorned. Most Americans are probably unaware that the Gang of Eight bill would not consider whether an immigrant is likely to become a “public charge,” defined as any individual likely to become “primarily dependent on the government for subsistence,” in determining whether or not he or she is eligible for legal status.

Of course, the U.S. and the U.K. are different countries and will naturally take different approaches to immigration reform. But the differences in the scope of the debates are telling. In 2007, concern over the economic impact of increased low-skilled immigration (including among Democrats) helped derail President George W. Bush’s push for comprehensive immigration reform. This time around, Democrats have gone silent, and the issue is rarely discussed in public debate. Maybe public opinion has shifted on the issue, but it seems as though the Gang of Eight and its supporters would rather not find out.

— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.



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