The United Kingdom's Immigration Debate Looks Familiar

President Obama stopped deportations and David Cameron wants to dissuade legal immigrants, but the two are dealing with similar immigration debates.
Photograph By: Bloomberg/Getty Images

A week after President Barack Obama announced his executive action on immigration, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron gave his own speech on his plan to curb people moving into the country.

The two nations are operating under vastly different circumstances—the United Kingdom is an island with a flood of legal immigration from European Union countries, while the U.S. is dealing with illegal immigration across its large southern border.

And yet the U.K.’s immigration debate has much of the same dramas as America’s: angry conservatives, disappointed liberals, and reforms that depend on the approval of others.

“Managing immigration is hard,” Cameron said Friday. “ Not only here ... look at the United States, the ultimate melting pot, where President Obama has just announced sweeping reforms.”

Immigration will likely be a big issue in Cameron's reelection bid in May, and his speech focused on what his party has done to curb illegal immigration and what it plans to do to limit “benefits tourism” from the EU. (The ideology of Cameron’s Conservative, a.k.a. Tory, party, most closely aligns with the Republican Party in the U.S.)

In their speeches, Obama and Cameron both discussed the importance of immigration and how being an open society is fundamental to the national character. But both plans also hinge on the idea that immigrants should contribute to the social safety net before they benefit from it. 

In the U.K., conservatives want to stop free migration under the EU, rather than to enforce a physical border. Cameron said that “if our concerns fall on deaf ears and we cannot put our relationship with the EU on a better footing, then of course I rule nothing out.” In his speech, he proposed that:

  • EU immigrants who don't have jobs shouldn't be able to claim a job-seeker benefit
  • EU immigrants who don't find a job within six months should be asked to leave
  • EU immigrants with jobs shouldn't be allowed to claim benefits, including public housing, for their first four years in the country 
  • EU immigrants shouldn't be able to claim a child benefit for children who don’t live in the U.K., even after four years 

“Yes, these are radical reforms,” Cameron said. “But they are also reasonable and fair.” 

The German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel is already calling it blackmail.

It’s worth noting that EU nationals make up a very small part of the number of people receiving British welfare benefits. A recent study from the University College London also showed that Eastern European EU immigrants paid 12 percent more in taxes than they received in benefits over the last decade. 

Yet cutting immigration was one of Cameron’s major promises—in 2010, he said his party would reduce immigration to below 100,000 a year, and voters could vote him out in five years if they didn’t. The prime minister’s speech came one day after a report showed that the U.K.’s net migration total rose from 182,000 to 260,000 people between 2013 and 2014.

Cameron is being blasted both by the U.K.’s version of the Tea Party and liberals, who are accusing Cameron of pandering to the far right (that should sound familiar).

Natalie Bennett, the leader of the Green Party, a fledgling political party attempting to establish itself as the real left, rejects the idea that immigration is a major problem. “This is a speech addressing non-existent problems—the government has not been able to produce evidence of systemic ‘benefits tourism’ or ‘health tourism,’” Bennett told the Telegraph. She argued he should be focusing on real problems “instead of choosing to pander to the electoral priorities of UKIP.” 

As the Daily Beast put it in April, UKIP is the U.K.’s Tea Party and its leader, Nigel Farage, is the country’s Sarah Palin. In 2006, Cameron called UKIP “a bunch of … fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists mostly.” He later apologized, but he doesn’t seem to have changed his mind, based on his thinly veiled reference to a recent UKIP scandal.

“We must never give in to those who would throw away our values, with the appalling prospect of repatriating migrants who are here totally legally and have lived here for years,” he said. Earlier this month, a UKIP candidate suggested EU residents in Britain should be sent home if the U.K. left the union.

A major difference between UKIP and the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party is that UKIP is its own party. Its uprising against the Tories can only help its own cause, and the party is actively seeking to oust Cameron and encourage voters to hold Cameron accountable for immigration.

Farage has also accused Cameron of punting the immigration debate until after the election.

Obama delayed his immigration plan until after the midterm elections, but he had the advantage of not being up for reelection. If Brits are as worried about the fraction of EU nationals using welfare benefits as Cameron and UKIP think they are, he’ll have to convince them he won’t break his immigration promise again. 

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