Reading Us and Them: the dangerous politics of immigration control by Bridget Anderson
The UK immigration debate has always seemed a bit of a shrill theatre to me. Populist scaremongering from the right finds its way into the mainstream in the form of outright crazy policy propositions like last month’s Go Home campaign and the proposed negative image campaign on Britain to deter immigration from Eastern Europe. Admittedly, the discourse mostly filters to me via left-leaning media, where liberal voices comment in disbelief on excesses of the tabloid press. But they are just as often forced to take on the categories of those who see immigration as a threat, due to the primitive force of their arguments.
I have witnessed the effects of increasingly restrictive UK immigration regulations in the experience of friends who are citizens of countries outside the EU. Their applications for leave to remain have had to overcome higher and higher administrative hurdles and waiting periods have been prolonged as UK Border Agency procedures are instrumentalised to meet political goals of lower net migration. Though a foreigner myself, as an EU citizen I am not challenged in my right to be here and have simultaneously been fortunate enough not to be exposed to the right-wing fringes of the discourse.
That is until a few weeks ago, when I had a very unpleasant, yet revealing encounter on the London tube. Quite randomly, a man in his mid-forties asked me if I was from Germany. He himself was a Londoner born in Bethnal Green, which prompted me to express my love for the cultural diversity of the East End and my fascination with its history of immigration.
The man on the tube did not agree with me and to illustrate his disdain for the lazy and criminal immigrants who he said were bringing down his native borough of Tower Hamlets, he picked up a dirty piece of newspaper from the floor of the train and motioned wiping his behind with it. However, in his mind it was only people from Bangladesh, a country “that doesn’t even exist” according to the man, who were the lowest of the low. “Sikhs and Gujaratis”, he added, “are OK because they’re not –––” and again he made a curious gesture: covering his forehead with one hand and his nose and cheeks with the other, aping a woman’s headscarf and niqab – because these groups are not Muslims.
As I broke off the conversation and turned away from him – furiously angry but unwilling to enter into a pointless argument with a half-drunk bully – he kept talking at me and told me that my reluctance to engage with him was due to my own nationality. As a German, I was bound to feel guilty, “because you lot killed 20 million people,” and therefore could not see the truth about people from outside Europe. He himself as an Englishman, on the other hand, was born to rule: “we know how to handle them.”
The worldview of the man on the tube, though repulsive, was layered and crudely differentiated: good immigrants are distinguished from bad ones by their willingness to work and by the degree of similarity of their values to British values; European foreigners are tolerated by their virtue of inherently similar values but are not per se entitled to participate in political debate; the ethnic natives have both a genetic gift to govern difference and an innate and exclusive entitlement to benefit from the resources of the country. All the while, the man emphasised that he was not a racist but speaking the truth about “objective” characteristics of different groups.
The rant of the man on the tube showed more clearly than usual the underlying assumptions of a mindset which portrays immigration as a threat to public order and the welfare of the “native” workforce. According to Bridget Anderson, Professor of Citizenship and Migration at Oxford University, a similar way of thinking and speaking in simplified and heavily value-laden categories can be heard coming from sophisticated commentators that shape opinions and from policy-makers in Britain today. Her brilliant new book Us and Them – The Dangerous Politics of Immigration Control analyses current discourse around immigration regulations in Britain and demonstrates how a set of pseudo-objective and ideological concepts are employed to shape and justify policies.
At the heart of UK immigration debates present and past, Anderson sees the idea of a ‘community of value’: an imagined group of good citizens who share not only legal nationality but also certain values and characteristics. It is in comparison and opposition to this narrow set of supposedly shared traits and aspirations – the good citizen being hard-working, law-abiding, family-oriented, heterosexual, white, and compassionate to those in society truly in need of help – that the migrant is assessed and defined. Crucially, the community of value is not openly promulgated but derives its force from the feeling of an unspoken consensus. This makes the rhetoric extremely malleable: while the identity of “Us” seems self-evident, the characteristics that isolate and exclude “Them” can be bent to serve multiple purposes.
This might seem counterintuitive as citizenship, the right to asylum, leave to remain etc. are commonly understood as straightforward legal and thereby neutral categories. But it is a main point of Anderson’s book to show how arbitrary categorisations of people can enable arbitrary treatment and justify discrimination. Historically, control of movement of people has been an instrument of asserting dominance of state institutions in the interest of the ruling classes in England. As early as 1348, vagrancy was made punishable by forced labour to stop landless peasants from leaving their masters for better paid work elsewhere. This was justified as necessary to protect society from the vice of idleness. In the following centuries, laws were refined to include regulations on begging, limiting this right to those genuinely unable to work and thus entitled to charity. The significance here is the longstanding conditioning of mobility and charity rights on the utilitarian moral duty to work. This invariably worked to the benefit of the economic and political elite.
With the emergence of colonialism, racial distinctions were added to the mix. The expanding empire gave all its subjects across the globe the theoretical right to move within the realm, but as white settler colonies became more established, ways were found to restrict the mobility of non-European subjects. While remaining “colour blind” on the surface, the right to move into Natal for instance was made dependent on European language literary – a safe way to sift through applicants with the desired outcome to “protect” against the influx of “low-skilled natives” from elsewhere. Later, when subjects morphed into citizens, the exodus of South Asian descendants from East Africa necessitated lawmakers to impose on citizens of the empire that they have a grandparent born in Britain to be able to access the British Isles – again finding a way to effectively make skin colour the criterion without saying so.
With the inception of the archetypical non-white immigrant concept, the community of value gained yet another ‘out group’. In effect, in later narratives bad (unemployed) citizens compete with immigrants over jobs in the same way that the level of integration of ‘good’ immigrants is measured in comparison to failed (lazy/deviant) citizens. As the ‘good migrant’ aligns closer with the community of value, a further discursive distinction is made between political refugees and economic migrants. Legal categories come to equal a value judgment and determine the right to assistance and charity.
The most recent iteration of this rhetoric is the discourse on Eastern European immigrants. Interestingly, commentators such as the Evening Standard’s Lindsay Watling selectively quote the complaints of shop-owners with non-English names when denouncing the behaviour of begging and ‘scrounging’ Eastern Europeans: the good migrant upholds the community of value against the threat of undesirable white migrants.
On a policy-making level, Bridget Anderson meticulously dissects assumptions used by the current government in its agenda to bring down “net migration.” Just as public opinion on immigration control is regularly gauged without specifying what actually constitutes different kinds of migrants, David Cameron’s immigration policies pursue numerical targets that do not match up with either lived realities in the country or what is actually attainable by policy intervention (i.e. which categories of people within the summary group of immigrants the government has legal control over).
Reading “Us and Them” was extremely helpful to my understanding of British conversations on migration policy. It is an invaluable book that calmly injects heated populists argument with well-founded historical specification and analytical rebuttal, making an intellectually compelling case against worrying policy trends. While I have focused on Anderson’s challenges to seemingly natural categories and concepts, I haven’t covered her very detailed and insightful analysis of an astonishing range of practical issues: from asylum to trafficking and from the role of skills in the labour market, to domestic servitude of irregular migrants. The book is very readable to an academic audience, but a more casual reader might occasionally get lost in the density of her analysis. I recommend watching Anderson’s straightforward and engaging talk on her own policy vision: a world without borders. The book, in turn, can be read as a repository of good arguments for anyone interested in a sensible debate and alternative migration policies.