Immigration and Welfare: Beyond Us and Them

Published 2 April 2013 / By COMPAS Communications

Back to Articles
COMPAS Photo Competition entry 2008 by Amara Hark-Weber -I walk between the lines

COMPAS Photo Competition entry 2008 by Amara Hark-Weber

Last week we had another Big Immigration Speech. This time it was David Cameron, post-Eastleigh courting the UKIP vote by explaining how his government will prevent benefit tourism. “There is an absolutely fundamental connection between our welfare and training policies on the one hand and our immigration policy on the other”. This connection, between immigration and welfare, is one that the Tories have made before: “Immigration and welfare are two sides of the same coin” said Cameron in a previous Big Immigration Speech in 2011. Importantly though this is not a party political question and the Labour Party have made no effort to challenge it. The connection seems to have two elements. Firstly, that migrants come to the UK to take advantage of a generous welfare state, and secondly that the benefits system makes life too easy and thereby entraps claimants in a ‘culture of entitlement’ which means that they are reluctant to compete with migrants. Unemployed British nationals, protected from hardship by a safety net, can end up too lazy to bother applying for jobs, preferring to spend the day in front of flat screen TVs swigging cans of lager. Both these claims are spurious. If by ‘migrant’ we mean ‘foreign national’ then access to benefits is limited by an ordinarily resident and a habitual residence test, and it is a cliché to say that most migrants who come to the UK for employment, come to work and not claim benefits. Moreover, even those eligible to claim are often reluctant – ask any immigration lawyer. As for lazy Britons being superseded by go-getting foreigners, the collection edited by Martin Ruhs and myself, Who Needs Migrant Workers? demonstrates that labour markets are far more complicated. What can be presented as people’s ‘choices’ to take up or refuse certain jobs are the consequences of policies as diverse as childcare, transportation and housing, and shaped by social ideas about status, gender and class, as well as the lack of flexibility of welfare benefits.

But there is something to be learned by looking at welfare benefits and immigration together. The political traction of the link comes from the assumption that is strongly implicit but rarely stated, that ‘The Migrant’ is poor. While financiers, advertising executives, professors and bankers may all work outside their country of citizenship, these are not the ‘migrants’ that policymakers, academics and people in the pub, are worried about. While governments will go to great pains to demonstrate that immigration policies are not racist, that they are not designed to keep out people of colour, keeping out the poor (and letting in the rich) is the sign of a well managed migration policy. Immigration restrictions are about the control of the mobility of the global poor, in the same way that in early modern Europe, vagrancy statutes were about controlling the mobility of poor labourers.

COMPAS Photo competition entry 2012 - by Kozdras, Slawek, 'United Under Johnny'

COMPAS Photo competition entry 2012 - by Kozdras, Slawek, 'United Under Johnny'

Contemporaneously, work in the UK is a duty for those claiming or threatening to claim welfare benefits, one that they fail to live up to because they are too immobile, not ‘getting on their bike’. Claimants must now be prepared to commute for an hour and a half to work in order to demonstrate they are available to work. In contrast for the global poor, work in the UK is seen not as a duty but as a right, one that they do not have. Compared to nationals though, they are too mobile. Borders, and the strongly imagined ‘national labour market’ play an important role in shaping the politics of internal as well as international labour mobility. We need to find ways of bringing them together to move beyond the idea that migrant workers and low waged and unemployed citizens are simply competitors for the privileges of membership.

Bringing an analysis of immigration restrictions and welfare benefits together rather than keeping them apart reveals how absurd some of the rhetorical claims are. ‘Generous’ welfare benefits? Really? That is not what many disabled people, carers, or unemployed are contending. From April thousands of the most vulnerable claimants who qualify for emergency assistance will be given food stamps which offer the possibility of controlling users’ access to alcohol, cigarettes and all non-essential food items. We have seen the consequences of this in the asylum seeker voucher scheme, with its attendant struggles, humiliations and incentives to break the law. Furthermore the changes last week’s Big Immigration Speech proposed for EU nationals will also hit British nationals. Immigration restrictions have consequences for British citizens too – as Vanessa Hughes demonstrated in her blog post about the difficulties faced by low waged people who want to sponsor a spouse to live with them in the UK.

In these hard times it is more than ever necessary to go beyond an analysis that pits migrants and the low waged/unemployed against each other. My new book Us and Them? The dangerous politics of immigration control examines the construction of differences between the foreigner and the citizen, and asks when and why do these differences matter, and what are their consequences. It argues that modern states portray themselves not as arbitrary collections of people tied together by a common legal status but as communities of value, imagined to comprise people who share common ideals and (exemplary) patterns of behaviour. The community of value is national in that it is defined from the outside by the Non-Citizen (the Migrant), but it is importantly also defined from the inside by the Failed Citizen (the Criminal, the Benefit Scrounger, the Prostitute and so on). Strong efforts are made to keep the Non-Citizen and the Failed Citizen apart, but analysing them together sheds new light on the Good Citizen and the politics of (Good) citizenship. Us and Them? theorises immigration debates in order to re-politicise them and to demonstrate their relevance to wider politics. Immigration controls not only impact on ‘them’ but also have profound consequences for ‘us’.