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What happened to integrating immigrants in Britain?

When I first came to the UK from the US in 2004, all the talk was about integration. This was just before Labour first rolled out the Life in the UK test, which I took, and passed, in 2010 to secure indefinite leave to remain. That version of the test asked me questions about opening a bank account, landlord and tenant rights, and schooling. Earlier this year I took the test again, now in its third iteration, with Labour’s bank account questions replaced by the questions added by the Conservatives about Henry VIII’s wives. I passed and naturalised as a British citizen.

As a sociologist of immigration, I have maintained a professional interest in these debates and discussions about integration over the years. But as an ordinary immigrant, and then citizen, I found myself somewhat less absorbed by all this integration talk. As a way to test – or achieve – integration, the Life in the UK test struck me in turns as feeble, risible, and misguided.

But the fundamental message conveyed to immigrants by all this integration talk was “make yourself at home”. And so I did. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but all that background chatter about integration was probably helping me get on with my life in the UK.

Testing Britishness since 2005. Joel Ryan/PA Archive

The immigrant ‘threat’

Fast forward 12 years to 2016, and there is no longer much discussion about integration. The discussion has moved to immigration. Even though I naturalised as a British citizen earlier this year, I’ve never felt more like a foreigner.

We can debate when immigration reared its nasty head as a political problem. We’ve seen it all before, but the current version seems to have crystallised in the 2015 general election when both the Conservatives and Labour jumped on UKIP’s anti-immigration bandwagon, endorsing the view that immigration required our urgent attention.

As a political problem, immigration quickly became a growth industry. The debate about the EU soon became a debate about immigration, and at the Conservative party conference in September, the Tories made sure that immigration would dominate Brexit negotiations.

The Tories sought, and found, new categories of problem immigrants: NHS doctors, foreign workers in firms, foreign academic advisers, overseas students, and even children of immigrant origin in our schools.

We’re told we only want the “best and the brightest” immigrants. But what about those of us who are a bit thick – are we not welcome here? What about the low-skilled workers serving us our coffee at Costa every morning? Some of them make a mean latte, but others – let’s be honest – could perhaps benefit from a “Barista in the UK” test. Should we be sending them back to the countries whence they came? I don’t think so.

Not displacing British workers

For politicians, immigration is a problem that must be urgently dealt with. In her speech to the Conservative party conference in September, the prime minister, Theresa May, said that many people “find themselves out of work or lower wages because of low-skilled immigration”.

But the social scientists studying these very questions (including the Home Office’s own Migration Advisory Committee) show us that low-skilled European migration has not displaced British workers, lowered their wages, or increased their unemployment.

The problem here is not so much in the economic impact of immigration on British workers, but in the divisive politics of scapegoating. And this immigration problem is in danger of becoming an integration problem. The Eastern Europeans who are at the heart of this immigration debate are here to stay. While we’ve been going on about immigration they’ve been going on about making their lives here, and many of them began doing this a long time ago.

Made to feel unwelcome

We should be redoubling our efforts to integrate immigrants into the fold of British society. But we’re too busy reminding ourselves how much of a problem “immigrants” – these very same people – are causing us. We make it more difficult for them to get jobs, even though there’s no evidence that they compete directly with British workers. We make it harder for them to access in-work benefits, even though European migrants pay more into the system than they take out in benefits. We limit their access to the NHS, requiring them to pay for services even when they’re making national insurance contributions. And we charge them £1,236 if they deign to try to join our country as full citizens.

Everything we’re doing is making it harder for them to become full members of British society. Add to this the xenophobia, racially motivated attacks, and toxic political rhetoric, and it’s no wonder that immigrants – myself included – are beginning to feel unwelcome here.

In the past I didn’t think that much about integration. But that was the point, I suppose: it allowed me to quietly get on with the business of integrating, in my own way, at my own pace. All this talk now about immigration is having the opposite effect: it’s getting in the way of integration. Multiply that by several million and you have a recipe for acrimony, division, and suspicion for a generation to come.

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