Shutdowns and Brexit Omnishambles – how fear of immigration has brought us to a standstill

18 January 2019

It is January 2019 and I am a dual British-American citizen witnessing the complete paralysis of both of my countries’ governments, one in partial shutdown and the other unable to break the deadlock Brexit has wrought.

Both standstills resonate with me particularly because it is immigration, or rather the fear of immigration, which lies at the heart of both crises. Whether it is solving a non-existent emergency at the US border or refusing to consider the continuation of free movement (thus opening a panoply of other potential Brexit deals), anti-immigration sentiment is causing considerably more damage than the problems those stoking such sentiment proclaim they are seeking to address.

In the Migration Advisory Committee report commissioned to examine EEA migration and provide a basis for a new migration system following Brexit, they even commented on this perverse situation. The report concluded that EU citizens contribute £78,000 more than they receive in benefits and costs, that they provide more NHS services then they consume, that there was very little evidence of impact on either the labour market or on aggregate wages for UK born workers and that contrary to popular belief, migration of EEA citizens likely had a positive impact on productivity and on innovation. The picture of EEA migration was in fact a rosy one. So rosy in fact that it was eclipsed by the negative impact of the referendum result –

“The fall in the value of the pound after the referendum vote to leave the EU probably raised prices by 1.7 per cent – this is almost certainly a larger impact then the effect on wages and employment opportunities of residents from all the EEA migration since 2004, although over different time period.”

In the US, reports show that the on-going shutdown has cost the US economy $1.2 billion per week, as well as the more personal impact on the 800,000 federal employees furloughed or working without pay. The shutdown is related to a dispute over the funding of a wall on the US southern border intended to prevent illegal crossings into the US. President Trump has insisted there is a ‘humanitarian and security crisis’ that demands extreme measures like the shutdown in order to guarantee funding for the wall’s construction. However, the number of apprehensions of people illegally crossing the border is at an almost historic low. The number of people apprehended has dropped from a high of around 1 million people in the early 2000s to less than 400,000 in the fiscal year to 2018. The President has also described in graphic detail specific stories of violent crime to push the narrative that the absence of a wall makes Americans less safe. These stories are intended to obscure the fact that studies have in fact found that "Increases in the undocumented immigrant population within states are associated with significant decreases in the prevalence of violence," and that immigrants have far lower arrest and conviction rates than native-born Americans.

By manufacturing panic over immigration and refusing to endorse the facts about the benefits that free movement have bought to the UK, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are doing us all a disservice. Not only do we stand to lose out from falling migration – the recent White Paper confirms that the proposals will lead to a reduction in the UK workforce of between 200,000 – 400,000 EEA nationals in the first five years and a resulting fiscal cost of £2 -£4 billion to the UK – but the obsession with immigration is also leaving us in limbo. By disavowing immigration, we have limited the options for a Brexit deal because any deal which gave us access to the single market would require free movement to continue. This limitation has led to a deal which cannot gain popular support in the House of Commons.

Unless and until our politicians decide to be honest with the public about immigration and to lead and not follow on this issue, we will continue to stand still while the real problems requiring redress mount up around us.  The clock is ticking and the world is watching.

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