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Are “radical” and “moderate” positions on migrants’ rights conflicting or complementary?


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There has been an interesting and mainly polite (if tense) discussion on and off Twitter in recent weeks about advocacy on migrants’ rights. This is in part linked to a short piece I wrote about deportations and a follow-up by Emma Harrison, director of IMIX. I’ve linked to some of the threads at the bottom of this blog post, although you may find that Twitter does not capture all the replies very well. The questions are profound: what are “we” asking for, who are “we” anyway, do moderate reforms undermine radical change and vice versa, are we trying to change minds or consolidate, is it hypocritical to argue for radical change in some areas but not others, how do we respond to border performance like deportation flights and other issues which do not suit our preferred framing of migrants’ rights issues?

Opinions differ. That is probably a good thing because different people need to be advocating differently to reach and persuade different audiences. So there is potentially space for a multiplicity of positions, although that depends in part on purists of either persuasion refraining from friendly fire. The real dilemma seems to be how far arguing for relatively moderate (yet also seemingly unattainable right now) changes — such as protecting more people from deportation or ensuring humane treatment of asylum seekers — might undermine longer term more fundamental change such as abolishing borders. And how far arguing for radical change makes short term reform less likely.

My hope in writing this and other similar pieces is to work things through in my own mind — which applies to almost everything I have ever written for Free Movement — and also to contribute to a persuasive campaign leading to actual, concrete, progressive reform of our current immigration system. Not just minor tweaks but major yet also moderate and achievable change in how migrants are treated in the United Kingdom. At the moment, migrants are treated as an exploitable resource to be discarded when spent. They should be treated with respect and as future citizens. To cut a long story short, I think achieving that means accepting that borders will continue to exist for the foreseeable future and therefore so, in some form, will border security, deportations, removals, detention and differential treatment of authorised and unauthorised migrants.

Is there really a conflict between radical and moderate advocacy?

Here I’m differentiating between (a) minor, (b) moderate, and (c) radical reform. The first might involve introducing an exception, a carve-out for a particular group or slightly liberalising an existing rule. The last involves major system change like abolishing borders, deportations or internal border controls. By “moderate” I mean significant, substantial reforms which are achievable in practice. One’s mileage may well differ in use of these words, of course, and words like “moderate” and “radical” are used as terms of abuse by some.

Some deny there is any tension between advocates for minor, moderate and radical reforms. That’s not how it feels, at least in the fevered environment of Twitter. It seems standard for a radical and sometimes moderate position to be dismissed as self-defeating Corbynism or simply ignored, and for a minor or moderate position to be criticised for moral failure and racism. There’s plenty of “x MUST do y” grandstanding on Twitter (self evidently not so, as later events always demonstrate) or sneery dismissal with implicit appeals to supposed common sense.

Gracie Mae Bradley, from Liberty, addresses the dilemma in a practical way by distinguishing between “reformist reforms” which ultimately shore up the existing system and “non-reformist reforms” which do not. It is a useful analytical tool, although opinions are still likely to differ on what falls into which category and why. She and Luke de Noronha (author of Deporting Black Britons) are working on a project to categorise immigration reform, which is something to watch out for.

Twitter is not the real world, though. It rewards conflict. Minor can be followed by moderate then radical. That is how race discrimination laws came to be, although the earliest iterations were criticised from both directions for both being too minor and too radical at the time. Most people would, I think, accept that minor and moderate changes are necessary precursors to radical change. It is certainly difficult to see how to achieve radical reform of the United Kingdom’s current immigration system from the starting point of today.

Is radical change inevitable in the end anyway?

There has been considerable positive social and attitudinal change over the last twenty years. Demographic changes appear on the face of it to suggest that progress on a range of liberal issues is inevitable. I am not so optimistic, though. It is true that attitudes on race have improved massively if we look to measures such as openness to mixed marriages. But it does not follow that attitudes to migrants will improve over time.

Firstly, conservatives are very adaptable. In their new-ish and excellent book, Brexitland, academics Rob Ford and Maria Sobolewska explore the UK’s changing demographics and underlying political attitudes over the last half century. It is a very good example of how to study identity politics and the recent revival of the radical right without, as some notable academics and commentators have, falling into the trap of admiring or even endorsing its proponents. Ford and Sobolewska identify three prevailing groups: conviction liberals, who are overwhelmingly university educated and based in cities; necessity liberals from ethnic minorities; and identity conservatives, made up of ethnocentric voters who tend to perceive the social and political world as a battle between groups, between “us” and “them”. Obviously, these are to an extent caricatures based on averages and there are plenty of individuals who do not conform to generalisations such as these.

In one passage Ford and Sobolewska point out just how fundamentally wrong previous arguments have been about how a liberal or conservative political agenda would be served due to demographic change. In recent years the Conservative Party, assisted by the UK electoral system, has managed to retain significant support amongst liberal social groups while also harnessing ethnocentric opinion, despite ceding control of the agenda to UKIP in the years before Brexit. Meanwhile, Labour cannot attract sufficient support amongst identity and necessity liberals to win an election and has lost significant ethnocentric support.

This was not inevitable. In Scotland, for example, the SNP has mobilised ethnocentric opinion for a different, in some ways more liberal, agenda. Migrants’ rights campaigners will note that this vision is one still involving more borders, not less, and still dependent on identity politics. The alliance of conviction liberals with ethnocentric voters is only likely to last as long as Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom.

The allegiances of necessity liberals may also shift over time. Identity liberals may become victims of their own success: as more liberal attitudes to race and diversity become embedded, the political interests of identity and necessity liberals may diverge.

Aside from demographic change, some argue a combination of public education on facts and positive narratives in the media can bring about transformative change. Again, I am not so optimistic. Positive public education is unlikely to occur on this government’s watch, the media prefers negative narratives and in any event this misses the point that it is not knowledge but identity that drives ethnocentric attitudes.

My own view is that progress on migrants’ rights is far from inevitable and we can still go backwards, even from the appalling situation we are in today. For example, it remains perfectly possible to mobilise necessity liberals against migrants, as we saw during the Brexit campaign.

Do radical positions alienate or educate?

But nor do I think that campaigners should stop trying to persuade people and abandon positions which are not already popular. Deporting foreign criminals is popular; exceptions to that principle are not. Tough rules on who gets to be a British citizen are potentially popular, the contrary — if presented in that way — is not. Citizenship stripping is popular, so potentially is charging migrants lots of money, denying asylum to refugees and more. So much depends on how these issues are framed and debated, and it seems evident to me that we’ve collectively been doing a pretty bad job at that in recent years.

I increasingly worry that radical positions on immigration issues alienate a lot of people and might ultimately be self defeating.

An interesting and depressing example in Brexitland caught my attention. Unprompted, a fairly encouraging 42% of members of a representative group of voters considered that London is better off because of ethnic diversity, compared to 28% who considered it worse off. That favourable balance dramatically changed if those questioned were fed a prior statement dismissing positive views of diversity as “the politically correct thing to say nowadays”: only 33% considered London better off because of ethnic diversity compared to 31% considering it worse off. People’s opinions, or at least perceptions, change depending on how and in what context a message is delivered and, therefore, by who. This is called “framing”.

British Future did some interesting and valuable work on this with How To Talk About Immigration back in 2014, but for a different purpose in a slightly different context. It is not a guide for progressive campaigners on how to craft their message but it does represent a good faith attempt to engage with and positively change debate. IMIX has been doing great work in explaining to those who will listen how to follow through on values-based campaigning.

Our problem is often that the news agenda is dictated by conservatives who focus on immigration issues which actively harm the progressive cause. It is hard to follow through on campaigning lessons when the only immigration issues in the media are criminals, deportation, small boats, breaches of border security, age disputes and “activist” lawyers.

The problem of campaigning on values in a hostile environment

To return to the example that started this discussion: I fear it may be counter-productive to respond to a deportation flight by arguing against all deportation of foreign criminals as a matter of principle, for example by arguing it amounts to double punishment. This approach may well lose more support than it garners and therefore reduce pressure on the government to change its approach. For the same reasons, I worry that in effect campaigning in favour of the right to cross the Channel in small boats (“the Refugee Convention allows it…”) or highlighting refugee demand to reach the UK make harsher asylum laws more likely, not less.

I think this because responding in this way cedes too much ground by engaging in an abstract and therefore unwinnable discussion. Liberals and radicals lose the fight for public opinion on abstracts like “foreign criminals” or “asylum seekers” or “illegals”. Or on “open borders” or “no deportations”. We might win on individual stories or even on arguments framed outside the narrow confines of migrants’ rights. Fair play, discrimination, citizenship and children are issues around which a consensus of opinion could potentially be constructed. Protecting foreign criminals isn’t. But we could argue that the men facing deportation arrived as children, they have been failed by British society and the British state, they are British in all but law, they are our responsibility. Indeed, left-wing commentator Owen Jones made exactly these points in a Guardian piece a couple of weeks after the Twitter discussion I mentioned earlier.

Making those arguments honestly seems to me to require that we accept that some people will be deported. In a system of nation states, it seems reasonable that a person who voluntarily moves as an adult from one country to another and breaks the law of the latter country in serious ways might be deported to their original country. It seems reasonable to distinguish in material ways between a person who migrates within the law and a person who voluntarily migrates outside the law (although there’s plenty of room for discussion on what “voluntarily” means given the vast economic differences between countries and regions).

By all means some can argue against deportation in principle, but if what the public sees when foreign criminals face deportation is “this or none” then many will prefer “this” who might otherwise have been persuadable with a different narrative.

How will real reform happen?

My own view is that the current government is unlikely to agree to any demand framed around “migrants’ rights” and any incoming Labour government will need to attract and retain a significant chunk of ethnocentric voters who are highly sensitive to immigration issues. I see few advocates putting forward moderate or even minor policies which could actually be adopted by the current government or by an incoming Labour government in the short or medium term.

The recent citizenship project and report led by British Future and chaired by a Conservative MP is a prominent exception. It is a really good example of consensus building and includes concrete proposals on positive reforms to citizenship policy and law which could be adopted by a Conservative or Labour government (although perhaps not this Conservative government under this Home Secretary). Some might conceivably criticise these as “reformist reforms” which serve to shore up the racist citizenship regime of neoliberal, post-colonial, capitalist nation states. But the vast majority of us can surely get behind these ideas, and an embedded positive, inclusive concept of citizenship can become a foundation for further reform. A similarly constructive report is due out tomorrow from the IPPR think tank on the “hostile environment” suite of laws and policies.

But what about family migration, work permits, visa fees, accommodating refugees, border security, deportation, detention, removals and more?

A lot of migrants’ rights campaigning seems to rest, often explicitly and always implicitly, on the idea that immigration controls should be completely abolished: there should be no consequence to crossing a border without permission, no action should be taken against a person who overstays and no differentiation made between citizens and lawful migrants on the one hand and unauthorised migrants on the other. I hope I am not guilty of inventing a straw man here: these seem to be the actual campaign points adopted, although perhaps as with “defund the police” the apparent meaning of the words may conceal a more subtle policy position.

It is right and proper for some people to be making these arguments. Someone needs to! Not because of the “Overton Window“, which is so very 2016. But because in the long term these are ideals worth fighting for and because it energises and inspires some people.

Say Labour does somehow manage to win the next election in 2024 (far from a forgone conclusion, partly for the reasons above). What should it do about whatever deportation laws have been adopted by then? Simply scrapping them and rolling back to the position before 2006 or even before 1971 or 1962 (when deportation was first introduced) is likely to be politically suicidal and lose any public trust gained on immigration. Amending in minor exceptions to the existing, awful rules seems too… minor. Perhaps a proposed wholesale reform of immigration law might sidestep the issue? Or an assurance that the headline laws might be made more adaptable and discretionary but enforcement on the ground would be more effective? The number of deportations of serious criminals has been plummeting in recent years: overall numbers of deportations have fallen but even within that lower total more and more of the numbers have been made up of minor EU citizen criminals. Same with asylum policy: what could a Labour government do which maintains borders and responds to small boat crossings and was not electorally suicidal?

The case for moral compromise

The abolition of the slave trade, women’s suffrage and gay marriage have been cited as comparators for the long fight for migrants’ rights. I’m not sure the first of these is wise: the brutal violence meted out to slaves is not comparable to the contemporary treatment of migrants. These great, historic campaigns did ultimately succeed, but only after massive, morally compromising concessions along the way.

The slave trade itself was deliberately chosen as the target by abolitionists rather than the institution of slavery. The trade was abolished in 1807 and slavery as an institution in 1833, albeit only after a massive compensation package not for slaves themselves but for slave owners. The debt was only paid off in 2015. On women’s suffrage, only women over the age of 30 were granted the right to vote by Parliament in 1918, at the same time that all men over the age of 21 were enfranchised. An equal right to vote only came in 1928. A lesser status than full marriage, limited to same sex couples only, was introduced in 2005 before the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 brought full equality. If campaigners had held out for total abolition or equality each of these great, historic reforms may have been even further delayed.

I’d like to see some focussed and effective campaigning for what might be considered “interim positions”: positions around which a coalition can be built and beneficial change achieved.

I would like to see more work on developing genuinely progressive yet also non-alienating immigration messages and policies to radically improve the treatment of migrants who come to the United Kingdom. To make headway, attract support and build a consensus I think it is necessary to accept that immigration controls exist and therefore that, for example, authorised and unauthorised migrants will be treated differently, borders will remain secure, removals and deportations will happen and even that some immigration detention will be needed. It also needs to avoid falling into the trap of valuing migrants only by their economic contribution. Within those constraints, there is still massive scope to improve citizenship laws, ensure that refugees who arrive are humanely treated and helped to get on their feet, help multinational families live together, stop discriminating against the migrants we welcome to the country with double taxation and punitive bureaucracy, constrain detention and regularise migrants already here.

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Colin Yeo

Immigration and asylum barrister, blogger, writer and consultant at Garden Court Chambers in London and founder of the Free Movement immigration law website.