Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Politics of Immigration Reform (Blair’s Lessons, part VI)

This semester, as I may have mentioned, I am participating in MSU’s Immigration Law Clinic in lieu of taking classes. I am also writing a 30ish page paper on asylum law. So as you can imagine, I am following the ongoing immigration policy discussions somewhat closely (at least, as closely as a law student in his final semester can). I hope I have not hidden my opinion too much regarding the need for reformation. (Jeremiah also has written a three-part series on immigration.)

One issue, though, that I would love to hear more about is how other nations’ immigration systems work. Surely, we can’t be the only nation experiencing some of these challenges, right?

Then Tony Blair started talking about immigration in his autobiography. And he has a fascinating perspective of both the immigration issue and the political posturing that takes place around it. Allow me to quote at length:

The Tories had one good issue to beat us with: immigration. In our early years, we had a real problem with asylum claims made by people who were really economic immigrants. The system to deal with such claims was, as I described earlier, hopelessly out of date. Eventually and after much bureaucratic agony, we had battered it into shape, but illegal immigration persisted as an issue. Britain was not the only country facing such a problem, of course, but I watched with dismay as progressive parties around Europe, one after another, got the immigration issue wrong and lost. 
People on the left are, on the whole, people with immensely decent instincts on migration. They loathe racism and know the issue of immigration is often a carrier for the racist virus. When people in Britain used to say they were against immigration, a goodly portion would really be against a particular type of immigrant, i.e. a black or brown face. It was unspoken, but everyone knew it was there. 
So the tendency for those on the left was to equate concern about immigration with underlying racism. This was a mistake. The truth is that immigration, unless properly controlled, can cause genuine tensions, put a strain on limited resources and provide a sense in the areas into which the migrants come in large numbers that the community has lost control of its own future. In our case this concern was natural, given the numbers involved. It was not inspired by racism. And it was widespread. What’s more, there were certain categories of immigrant flow, from certain often highly troubled parts of the world, who imported their own internal issues, from those troubled parts of the world, into the towns and villages in Britain. Unsurprisingly, this caused real anxiety.
Every time we regulated and tightened the asylum laws, I would get grief from well-intentioned progressives who thought I was “conceding” to racism. I used to explain that it was precisely to avoid racism that we had to do it. The laws were a mess. The political challenge was to prevent subjective racism building up into a coalition that was mainstream. But time and again across Europe, right-wing parties would propose tough controls on immigration. Left-wing parties would cry: Racist. The people would say: You don’t get it. 
The Tories were desperate to push us into the same bind, so they began a high-profile assault on illegal immigration, claiming that it was not racist to be worried about it and hoping that we would say that it was. Of course, I insisted we did no such thing. 
Instead, some way into the campaign I visited Dover, where unfounded asylum claimants were often lodged, and made a speech that directly took on the issue. Gwyn Prosse, the MP for Dover, was someone on the left himself, and canny enough to understand that if he wasn’t armed with an argument that conceded there was a problem, he was not going to be re-elected. I praised the contribution of immigration. I described how we were going to tackle it. I attacked the Tories for raising the issue without having a policy to deal with it, i.e. they were exploiting the issue, not solving the problem. Rather to their surprise, I put ID cards at the centre of the argument, reasoning that some system of identity check was the only serious way of meeting the challenge. Essentially, after that speech we shut down the Tory attack, and for once the media actually allowed an issue to be aired and debated. Because our position was sophisticated enough—a sort of “confess and avoid,” as the lawyers say—we won out.
Naturally, this makes me look for US parallels. Which party today is the one raising the issue but offering no solution (i.e. merely exploiting it)? Are there elements of racism in one side or the other? Do the liberals who favor amnesty have a way to balance that with community interests? Could the conservatives who are arguing that all we need is stricter enforcement support something like a national ID or greater law enforcement presence (especially considering that immigration law enforcement is expensive and fraught with problems)?

But I think what was most refreshing was hearing someone who supports the “liberal” position conceding that the “conservative” opposition raised a valid point. 
My inclination, along with Blair's, is to take the more liberal side in this debate. But what I especially appreciate about his analysis is that he actually took the strongest opposing point he could find. He then engaged the point, resisting the temptation to name call. Notice his strategy, though. First he conceded the point was valid, then he stole it, and finally he made the opposition look silly for still talking about a problem they had no solution for, but that he did.

Also in this series:
Reforming Political Parties (Blair's Lessons, part I)
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