The featured speaker in the makeshift house of worship was a local politician on a dual mission: First, he offered vague reassurances to the city’s Latin American undocumented immigrants of his support in their long-shot bid for legalization. More urgently, he sought to garner votes for his party from the church’s already-legalized immigrants for the looming elections.
This was not Tucson, where the undocumented and their supporters are declaring their dismay with Arizona’s controversial new immigration law. Nor was it Las Vegas, where Harry Reid has been attempting to revitalize his campaign with a sudden zeal for immigration reform.
This was Britain, where during the electoral campaign leading up to the May 6 elections, immigration proved to be an explosive issue, second only to concerns about the recession. Hopes for immigration reform in the United Kingdom hung in the balance of these elections, but instead of campaign platforms that offered practical solutions to the issue, a reactionary hard-fisted rhetoric dominated the political landscape, much like in the United States.
The speaker on a dual mission was Richard Barnes, the Conservative Deputy Mayor of London. He was speaking at the Christian Community of London (CCL), which has grown so much in the past two decades that it has taken over the gymnasium of a public leisure center to house its 2,200-strong congregation of mostly South American immigrants. Inspired by the liberation theology that has propelled so many Latin Americans into political activism, Peruvian Edmundo Ravelo founded the CCL in the 1970s to minister to London's Latino community, at the time burgeoning with political exiles and guest workers. His church now serves as a platform for several advocacy campaigns for London’s estimated 88,000 Latin American immigrants. “We want our members to see that politics is important, to be proactive,” Marcos Ravelo, son of Edmundo and co-pastor at CCL, tells NACLA.
The parliamentary campaign was defined by preoccupations over a resurgence of the racist ultra-rightwing British National Party, in reaction to the perceived chaos in the United Kingdom’s immigration control regime. Playing up to the general nativist mood, both the Labour and Conservative parties duly jockeyed to harden their line against immigrants, documented and undocumented alike. Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labour Party recently instituted a new ID card scheme for all foreign residents. And on April 6, the day Brown dissolved Parliament to officially start the electoral campaign, his government tightened the eligibility requirements for work permits. David Cameron’s Conservative Party promised to place a limit, as yet unspecified, on the number of legal immigrants who can enter Britain in any migration category. “We believe it is important to . . . reduce immigration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands,” Jeremy Brier, a Conservative Parliamentary candidate for a London suburb, explained vaguely to NACLA prior to Election Day.
However, new restrictive immigration policies would have an impact on very few people who can enter and work in Britain legally. Most new workers arrive as citizens of European Union member states, with automatic right to residence, and still more come from commonwealth countries like Bangladesh and India, former colonies of the British Empire with preferential immigration agreements.
The Conservative party discovered upon issuing their proposal to cap all non-EU migration that the politically sacrosanct firms in London’s financial district will refuse to tolerate any cuts to migration categories that bolster Britain’s competitiveness. Indeed, a study shows that immigration helped companies grow faster, boosting Britain’s economy by $2477 per head.
However, with nativist sentiment peaking, undocumented migrants, mostly from Latin America and Africa have become a popular scapegoat for voter antipathy, although they constitute only a fraction of new migrants. Of the 6.5 million people of the foreign –born population in Britain, approximately 618,000 are undocumented.
Political scientist Michael Samers argues that migration policies in countries like the United States and Britain reflect contradictory pressures: Policymakers try to buffer their political legitimacy with nativist electorates while still appeasing business interests in need of cheap or highly skilled labor. And in both the United States and Britain, politicians have resolved this conflict with an immigration control strategy emphasizing limited legal immigration and border enforcement, without in-country enforcement such as employer sanctions. The United States and the U.K. have also been at the forefront of regional trade liberalization, with NAFTA and the Treaty of Maastricht respectively, without adequately planning for correlated displacements in regional labor markets and agricultural sectors. This strategy generates political capital from voters and big business and also allows the disenfranchisement of migrants caught in the center of this perverse system, but does little to actually curtail migration.
In the United States the militarization at the border has not stopped new undocumented migrants from arriving, and has bottled up migration that used to be cyclical. In Britain, most of the so-called “unwanted” migration is legal in the first place, and most of the smaller number of undocumented immigrants simply overstay their visas. In both cases, politicians have few incentives to speak frankly to their constituents about immigration, and still fewer to pay attention to the needs of migrants themselves.
In Britain, the Liberal Democrats are an important exception to this trend. They have proposed to legalize undocumented migrants who have been resident for longer than 10 years, modifying a current law that grants legal status to the undocumented after 14 years of residence. Caroline Pidgeon, Lib Dem candidate for a South London borough with a large population of Latin American migrants, explained to NACLA: “We need to address the absolute fact that there are many people who have lived in the U.K. for many years and are part of our communities yet face serious exploitation due to their status . . . It is in my view unfair on all these people who are living in this forgotten underworld who are suffering at the hands of rogue employers and individuals.”
Their proposal has provoked little more than contempt from every other party. Using a favorite argument of U.S. opponents of immigration reform, Brown and Cameron charged the Lib-Dem “amnesty” would heighten incentives for future lawbreaking by would-be migrants. But Brown revealed his party’s duplicity a few days before the election in a debacle that crushed his hopes for a renewed tenure at Downing Street: At a campaign event elderly Labour voter Gillian Duffy asked him, "All these eastern European that are coming in, where are they flocking from?" Brown reiterated his promises to get immigration under control. But in the car afterward a forgotten Sky News microphone caught him sneering to a campaign aide about the "bigoted woman."
Far from buoying the Lib Dems’ prospects, the fury unleashed by Brown’s hypocrisy hurt Clegg’s electoral chances. Voters have defected to Cameron’s hard-fisted stance on immigration, with the Tories garnering a plurality of votes on May 6. But with no party winning a majority or a mandate to form a government, both Cameron and Brown feverishly courted Clegg in hopes of forming a coalition, giving him enormous leverage to push his party’s agenda and re-table the proposal for immigration reform. On May 11 it was announced that Cameron won this battle, and will be the next prime minister. However, the uncomfortable coalition between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties make it anyone's guess what Britain's future immigration policies will be.
Meanwhile, London’s migrants are scrambling to counter their negative politicization. To that end, the CCL has linked with faith organizations, trade unions, and grassroots campaigns like Strangers into Citizens to push for reform on issues like immigration reform, quality education for their children, and earning a living wage. They have also forged ties with local politicians, and the Latino church is a now an important stop on the campaign trail for London candidates of all parties.
"We are not in the PR business," Marcos Ravelo says of CCL. "We are just offering a way of gathering people." A hub for politically maligned and vulnerable Londoners, CCL also hopes to function as "a conscience to society."
But sadly, it seems unlikely that CCL’s voice will matter as much as Gillian Duffy’s to whoever becomes Britain's next prime minister.
Samantha Eyler Reid is a NACLA Research Associate