Author: Sean O’Grady
Sometimes, given his near pathological approach to migration, you might be forgiven for thinking that Donald Trump’s forbears came over to America from Plymouth with the pilgrim fathers on the Mayflower in 1620.
They didn’t, and the 45th president of the United States has German grandparents, Scottish mother, Czech first wife, Slovenian (current) wife and shows no reluctance in using “chain” familial migration rules to grant his father and mother-in-law United States citizenship.
None of this is reprehensible. America has been built on migration form every possible corner of the world and across many centuries, though not all landed willingly. What is remarkable about Mr Trump is his hypocrisy. While the first lady’s parents encountered little difficulty in taking their citizenship in a private ceremony, members of his own administration were obstructing justice and breaking the law. A federal judge in Washington ordered that a plane be turned round when he was informed that a deportation was in progress before the case had been adjudged.
He threatened, too, to hold the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, in contempt of court. It is hardly the greatest of the judicial tribulations of the Trump administration, but it is embarrassing, and highlights how migration policies across the West lie in disarray.
In America, all that the Trump administration has managed to achieve thus far is to – literally – cage children and criminalise their parents. The famous wall that was supposed to stop refugees from Latin America’s poverty and narco-wars remains unbuilt, and as flawed a concept as ever. The effective withdrawal of the US from the Nafta trade agreement means that there is less chance that living standards and incomes south of the Rio Grande will rise towards those prevailing in the US and Canada – thus merely adding to the economic incentives to attempt to settle in the US.
It is a global phenomenon. In Australia, like America a land of immigrants, only the most lethal action by the Royal Australian Navy and the dumping of migrants in unsuitable colonies in Cambodia and Papua New Guinea has seen the flood of humanity subside.
Much the same applies to Europe. The reason why 1 million Syrian refugees settled in Europe, mostly in Germany and Sweden, was not that there was suddenly some rush to claim benefits in Munich or Stockholm, but because, again, violence, civil wars, oppression and grinding poverty has pushed desperate people to desperate measures. In fact, as is so rarely acknowledged, nations such as Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon have carried a much heavier burden from the wars in Syria and Iraq than have the Western powers put together, just as Mexico has become home to many form El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia and elsewhere.
For the British, the looming reality of Brexit offers little scope for optimism. Having relied on migrants to build the economy, do the dirty jobs and staff the public services almost continually since the end of the Second World War, the UK will shortly be in the unaccustomed position of attempting to design a comprehensive immigration policy from scratch. With the containing uncertainty of Brexit, this is a poor state of preparedness. Indeed, the Windrush scandal demonstrated how imperfect the rules, and their application, were in the past. Now the British government cannot offer EU citizens making a life in the UK much clear idea of their future. Will they be able to claim tax credits? Will they be able to use the NHS (even if they work in it)? Will they be able to bring in family members? If so, under what rules?
The Confederation of British Industry is the latest, and most important, body to try and inject some sense into the debate; they speak for big business, yes, but many smaller businesses too, especially in agriculture and horticulture, depend on EU labour to bring in the crops and process them. The CBI suggest a liberal approach to new work permits, and the abandonment of the tried and failed system of “caps” or targets on net migration. These, it may be recalled, were promised before his first election as prime minister in 2010 by David Cameron as a “no ifs, no buts” pledge to his core supporters that the figures would be in the “tens of thousands”. Even with Theresa May at the Home Office pursuing her “hostile environment” strategy the figures remained in the hundreds of thousands, precisely as Mr Cameron has pledged they wouldn’t.
The policy has collapsed because it is utterly economically unrealistic. It is time to recognise that migration is good for the economy and, indeed, is one of the few ways the British can make their economy competitive enough to sustain the self-inflicted predations of Brexit. It is the ultimate irony of the EU referendum.
It is often said that political leadership across the west on immigration has been lacking, and it is true. Its absence has left voters confused and fearful, and, prospectively, much the poorer. Yet the fate of Angela Merkel in Germany provides a cautionary note. She has managed to stay in office despite a radically humanitarian policy, and one that will, in the longer run, further strengthen Germany’s powerhouse economy by fixing its demographic decline.
In the decades to come, Europe may be able to compare the shifting fortunes of the UK and Germany as a kind of real-time experiment. History, recent experience and common sense suggest that the countries who favour a sensible approach to migration will fare better than those who try to close the door on the world.