This week, British Prime Minister David Cameron outlined his plans to restrict and deter immigration into the United Kingdom. The measures, which he states are to avoid Britain looking like a "soft touch" to less affluent Euro zone countries, typify the UK approach to immigration at present. The approach also runs counter to the current attempts to enact immigration reform in America.
Cameron's proposed reforms would not be particularly shocking to a layperson. Under the new rules, the ability to speak English will be a deciding factor when determining whether a migrant is eligible for Job Seekers Allowance, an unemployment benefit granted to those looking for work. If, after six months, it is determined that the claimant does not stand a ‘reasonable’ chance of finding work, their allowance will be stopped. In addition, Cameron presented the fact that there was an increase of 40% in the number of migrants moving into social housing between 2007-08 and 2011-12. He has said that this will be curbed by imposing a strict residence test. Taking aim at the financial ills of migration once more, he suggested that the UK could recoup £10-20m from European Economic Area (EEA) countries through reciprocal agreements, rather than providing NHS treatment to migrants.
While these measures may seem sensible, most already exist. Cameron’s insinuation that there is a deluge of non-English speaking migrants claiming Job Seekers Allowance is simply not backed up by figures. Of the 2.2 million migrants who have arrived in the UK from the eight Eastern European nations in the Euro zone, only 12,850 have filed claims for unemployment support. This is likely to be because the reasonable chance test for unemployment benefits is already standard procedure. Cameron also failed to add that the 40% increase he stated is actually only 2.5% of the total increase in the social housing sector. This comparatively small increase is largely due to the fact the a habitual residence test is already a standard check for social housing. This reluctance to flirt with the truth earned him a repudiation from Sarah Mulley of the Institute for Public Policy Research who added, "Mr Cameron risks reinforcing a myth that you get straight off a plane and get a council house. Politicians should take care not to stoke fears that are not grounded in fact. The vast majority of immigrants are in the private rented sector."
Rather than act as a definitive policy push, Cameron’s speech was an attempt to deflect the issue of Britain’s ailing economy from his own door, while at the same time, playing to his base. By suggesting that migration to the UK is “badly out of control," it draws attention away from his party’s own economic policies. This push to curb immigration, however, has taken its toll on the economy itself. Legislation passed in 2011 limiting student visas is expected to cost the UK £3.4bn, while also having the effect of counteracting Cameron’s claim that he wishes the UK to accept only “the brightest and the best.” When compared to the £20m Cameron expects to save on the NHS, this figure is certainly not expected to help the country out of its economic malaise.
The negative stance toward migration in the UK appears to be taking a very different path to the latest push across the Atlantic. In the wake of the 2012 election, immigration reform centering around the “path to citizenship” for undocumented workers has received support from elements on both sides of the aisle. With the “Gang of Eight” currently working on “a 10 or 15-year process” of citizenship for illegal immigrants, legislation of some variety appears to be imminent. The proposals remain controversial of course, and it retains the same level of political calculation as UK reform. However, the current mood appears to be turning toward removing barriers to migrant residence, which stands in contrast to UK sentiment.
David Cameron’s speech highlighted the UK government's present stance toward immigration. While his Conservative government remains in power, the UK will continue its move toward isolation. With sentiment across the Atlantic turning in order to accommodate a generation of new voters, two very different ideas of how to handle the influx of foreign nationals are set to be demonstrated.