Similarities and Differences as U.K. and U.S. Face Immigration Decisions

By David North on June 29, 2010

Both the British and American governments want to change their nations' immigration policies; both, apparently, are currently engaged in maneuvers that fuzz the issues.

There are both parallels and differences between the two nations' systems, as they face similar questions: Should migration be reduced? And what should be done about the current population of illegal aliens?

On both sides of the pond there are relatively new government leaders, both young and charismatic. Both have made campaign pledges regarding immigration policy. Both must cope with large numbers of legislators who want to reduce migration – the Tory backbenchers (i.e., non-ministers) and the Republican members of Congress. (See the Guardian's report on this.)

In both countries powerful economic interests, the corporations and the universities, oppose reductions in migrant numbers, according to the Telegraph.

But there are structural and policy differences, too. Once the U.K. Government of the Day decides the policy, it takes action as quickly as it wants, whether it is a party-line vote in the House of Commons, or a ruling by the Home Secretary.

In the U.K. there is virtually no worry about land borders, and the immigrant vote (and tradition) is much weaker there than here; these are non-complications. On the other hand there is, with this government, a major complication – the fact that it is a coalition between a low-immigration party (the Tories) and a more open-borders party (the Liberal Democrats.) It is not a 50-50 coalition, however, and the Conservatives are much stronger than the Lib-Dems.

Further, all parties in Britain have their hands tied about a major component of international migration: the EU treaty that allows residents of EU nations to settle and work in other EU nations without restrictions. (This is, to some extent, limited when it comes to the newest, and poorest national members of the EU community.)

In contrast, currently the U.S. has only limited treaty obligations regarding immigration, notably the flow of NAFTA nonimmigrants, largely from Canada, over which no nation has any control.

As to policies, David Cameron, the new Tory leader, ran on a platform of reducing the non-EU portion of international migration from "hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands"; the Tory backbenchers, who tend to be a bit more conservative and less internationalist in outlook than the ministers, are all for the cap. The Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, wanted no reductions in immigration. As part of a comprehensive deal between the two, in which the Tories gave on some issues and the Liberal Democrats on more, the Tory position on the migration cap was adopted. The Liberal Democrats prevailed on another immigration matter, however, and Britain will begin an exit screening program for departing migrants.

Just what happens next is not totally clear, particularly as to the details of the policies to be adopted. As another report indicated, the parties' joint statement on immigration in May was "fuzzy."

Yet another, and more recent report said that the government has taken only the mildest of actions, on an interim basis, but promised a "tough" permanent cap starting next April. What the government has done is to reduce by 5 percent the number of non-EU investors and skilled migrants with job offers. (This is a little like Obama announcing the dispatch of 1,200 National Guardsmen to the border while quietly cutting overtime for Border Patrol agents.)

On the other hand it is very clear that there will be no amnesty in Britain. The Lib-Dems' desire for one was traded away in the coalition bargaining.