There’s one word that’s constantly in the news these days – immigration. It recently occurred to me, while watching coverage of the current ‘DACA’ debate in the US, that as a society, we have a lack of understanding of why immigration is so essential, and I believe that’s to our detriment. Drawing on my own personal experiences as a small-town boy in the big smoke, here’s my case for immigration.
Political scape goats
DACA refers to the ‘Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals’ programme. It was launched by President Barack Obama in 2012, giving legal protections against deportation to over 600,000 people who came to the US illegally from other countries as children, through no fault of their own. President Trump, the man who made restricting immigration via measures such as building a wall on the US’ border with Mexico a key plank of his election-winning campaign platform, is now talking about ending DACA for good. This move plays to his virulently anti—immigrant political base, whose voters have long argued that foreigners are taking their jobs and forcing their social norms on Americans.
It isn’t just the US which is struggling with immigration; it’s always been an issue. There is an intrinsic fear in human beings of the ‘other,’ and these people have become political scape goats for society’s own ills. Just look at the anti-Jewish pogroms of the Middle Ages. It was often the case that when European countries were hit with negative events such as famines, people would need someone to blame. The Jews, who through their very faith stuck out in fiercely-Christian Europe, were often blamed, and then expelled from their homes or even killed as a result. Quite famously, in my country the entire Jewish population was expelled by King Edward I in 1290 A.D., believe it or not, to quell discontent among his virulently anti-Semitic population after the imposition of a horribly steep tax.
Immigration is just as much a hot button topic in the UK today, as it was during the time of the Plantagenet kings. Yes, I’m talking about Brexit. There has been this feeling among many British people for years that the EU’s generous policies on immigration were allowing people from Eastern Europe to come into the country and take their jobs. The reasoning behind this fear, is the idea that these foreigners are often willing to except lower wages due to lower expectations concerning living conditions, and this has led many to believe that immigrants have a negative impact on their lives. According to The Independent, survey data shows that 73% of British people who cited immigration as a concern voted to leave the EU. Am I saying that this is the only reason for Brexit? No, of course not, but to say that immigration wasn’t a key factor for many people is just plain wrong.
Positives for society
So, is immigration good or bad? I do believe in restrictions on immigration, and on adequate border security; we can’t let everyone in, there just aren’t enough resources to go around. However, I do believe that immigration emboldens society, as it enables the free flow of new ideas, powering society’s development. If we close ourselves off, we just allow ourselves to stagnate; Japan is a perfect example. Japan had been a highly advanced society, technologically and culturally, in the Middle Ages. In 1641 A.D., the rulers of Japan embraced isolationism and they were bypassed by the Industrial Revolution which allowed European countries to become global superpowers. It wasn’t until Japan opened itself up to the world in the 19th Century that they made up this lost ground.
The US itself serves as a key reminder when it comes to the positives of immigration. Did you know that there’s an inscription on a plaque next to the Statue of Liberty? It reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” This is arguing that if a country embraces the downtrodden or suppressed, these people will become an asset. This is why the US has long called itself a ‘melting pot’, welcoming people from all over the world, with figures ranging from Albert Einstein and Madeline Albright, to Joseph Pulitzer, Arianna Huffington and George Soros, finding a place in the new world. These people have gone on to amazing things in fields like science, journalism and politics, changing the world for the better.
We can look at my own country to see the positive impact of immigration. There’s this argument among many anti-immigration activists that foreigners abuse our benefits system, but this just isn’t true. Figures quoted by The Telegraph show that from 2001 to 2011, immigration has had a net fiscal benefit for the UK, as immigrants from the ‘EU-15’ countries contributed 64% more in tax than they received in benefits. We actually need more immigration to keep our books balanced and fund vital social programmes like the NHS. Data shows that if UK immigration runs at 140,000 per annum, then our national debt will comprise 99% of our economy in 50 years’ time, but without any immigration at all, the national debt will equal 150% of our economy. The numbers just don’t lie here.
If the Brexit campaign taught me anything, it’s that facts and figures often fly in one ear and out the other. I can chuck positive historical facts and numbers concerning immigration at you until I’m blue in the face, but if you think immigration is a bad thing, it probably won’t make any difference. The figures I quoted in the last paragraph were released well before the referendum, yet we still voted to leave. By following the same sex marriage debate, however, I have learned that people are far more likely to listen to personal stories than facts or figures; it was hard for people to be homophobic when they heard how bigotry personally impacts people they know. So, I’m going to get personal.
I grew up in a small English seaside town called Scarborough. It was one of the most stereotypically British places you could think of when I was growing up, with hardly any diversity to speak of. It was hard as a gay man who was coming to terms with his sexuality to live in such as environment, as when there’s such a lack of diversity of thought, there’s a small town mentality which causes people to look down on those who are different. It was extremely difficult for me to find acceptance – although don’t get me wrong, my family and friends were great – among the wider population, because they just weren’t used to having to deal with anything outside their comfort zone.
I came into my own as a gay man when I moved away from home. I have lived in some of the UK’s most vibrant cities like Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester, which are all melting pots which welcome people from all over the world. It made a huge difference, living in places where people are used to dealing with diversity as an everyday fact of life, as I suddenly found myself among people who have the life experience to know that difference is our strength as a society, not our weakness. I have also met many people from cultures who are radically different from mine, and their experiences have made me better as a person, as they have opened me up to new concepts and ways of living.