Literature, Immigration and Diaspora in Fin-de-Siecle England: A Cultural History of the 1905 Aliens Act

Antony Lerman writes:

How should politicians respond to worries about immigration? Should they explain that immigrants from the eight Central and East European countries that joined the EU in 2004 have paid more in British taxes than they’ve received in direct and indirect public transfers? Or should they deploy vans on London’s streets with huge billboards telling illegal immigrants to GO HOME OR FACE ARREST, a campaign the government introduced in July? Should they argue for an amnesty for the more than 600,000 undocumented immigrants, given that, according to the latest figures, the UK Border Agency is having trouble clearing a backlog of 500,000 unresolved cases? Or instead enlist doctors, landlords and employers to track them down, a key plank of the government’s immigration bill? Criticised even by Ukip, the mobile billboard wheeze was scrapped on 22 October; the vans were ‘not a good idea’, admitted an unapologetic Theresa May. But the government is going ahead with its plan to outsource immigration control to private citizens, despite a barrage of criticism and a Channel 4 FactCheck report finding no clear evidence that it would work. To have presented objective data about the impact of immigration or granted an amnesty would have been sensible, but the vast majority of politicians shrink from suggesting such possibilities because they won’t risk being seen as ‘soft’ on immigration. Rare is the MP who doesn’t pander to the public’s prejudices: that Britain is full, asylum-seekers are ‘spongers’ and even legal immigrants won’t ‘integrate’. This shameful state of affairs was legitimised in 2005 by Tony Blair in the White Paper Controlling Our Borders: Making Migration Work for Britain: ‘Tolerance [is] under threat from those … abusing our hospitality.’

(LRB 7 November 2013)