If Britain Wants Integration, It Should Stop Blaming Immigrants For All Its Problems

British Polish Community
Polish language magazines are displayed at a Polish delicatessen in Grays, England, December 11, 2015. Prejudice against immigrants helped drive Brexit. Neil Hall/Reuters

A report on integration by Dame Louise Casey, released in Britain Monday, told us something we already know: Integration is a problem in the U.K. The report says it wants to stimulate a "national conversation" about integration. But most of the talk today is not about integration, but about immigration. What the report doesn't recognize is that the current consensus that immigration is a problem is one of the biggest obstacles to the integration debate.

If there's one thing that Brexit taught us it's that immigration is seen by many voters and politicians as a problem that needs to be urgently dealt with. Against the findings of much social scientific research on these topics, we keep hearing from politicians that immigrants are taking our jobs, stealing our benefits, clogging up our schools and hospitals, begging, thieving, trafficking, and slowing traffic on the M4 motorway.

The problem with all these claims (aside from their untruthfulness) is that the people who are part of the immigration problem are the same ones who are a part of the integration problem. By turning up the volume on immigration rhetoric we're drowning out the possibilities for integration. Toxic rhetoric about immigration is acting as a barrier to a more cohesive society.

In the report, the problems with immigrants grow. Muslim women, fast becoming the poster children of failed integration, are now responsible for not taking our jobs — staying at home instead — for wearing the niqab or hijab, for promoting intolerance (which we simply cannot tolerate), and for being susceptible to radicalization (or susceptible to radicalizing their Muslim sons).

Why are we surprised when all the people we're condemning as niqab wearers, service cloggers, benefit scroungers, terrorists-in-waiting, and lane hoarders on the M4 don't feel particularly integrated?

Read more: Why nations need to control their borders

This can be seen in the rise in hate crimes reported since Brexit, hate crimes that target not only East Europeans (the immigrant "problem" Brexit is supposed to fix), but also the children and grandchildren of previous generations of immigrants. It can also be seen in entrenched structural dislocation experienced by many minority groups in the U.K. (as acknowledged in the Casey Report), a dislocation that in many cases can be understood as attributable at least in part to ethnic discrimination.

And it can be seen in even more pervasive (and pernicious) perception of racism, where people are becoming increasingly concerned about racism and xenophobia, even when they personally have not (yet) been its targets.

Former Prime Minister David Cameron, who commissioned the Casey Report, reminded us in 2007 that "integration is a two-way street." But it seems that we're putting up plenty of roadblocks along the way. While we recognise that many would-be citizens are socio-economically marginalised, we require those of them on tier-two visas to have an income of £35,000 ($44,500) to settle permanently. If they then wish to naturalize, they can expect to pay £1,236 (plus extras) for the privilege. All of this is necessary for immigrants to simply enjoy the minimum legal requirements for full inclusion in Britain. Dame Casey would like these people to take an "oath of integration." But if it's integration we're after, we should be providing paths to integration, not obstructions.

The problem is that our immigration policy and rhetoric is incompatible with our desire for integration. We make it relatively easy for immigrants in the City of London — a global, transnational elite — to integrate. They're doing just fine (though maybe things have got a bit awkward for even them since Brexit). But our increasingly restrictive immigration policies are making every other category of immigrants undesirable. That's bad enough for would-be immigrants waiting outside the doors, hoping to get in. But it's worse for the people already in, who were welcomed to the U.K. as part of the solution, to fill various gaps in the economy, only to discover they're now part of the problem.

If we want these people to integrate, we should stop blaming them for all our problems.

Jon Fox is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Sociology, Politics, and International Studies and Assistant Director of the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship at the University of Bristol. His research focuses on immigration, racism, ethnicity, and nationalism in East Europe and with East Europeans in the UK.