The Immigrant Song

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Immigration remains a major policy issue for political parties across Europe. And the status of immigrants following Brexit is still to be determined. And yet, despite all the attention: designating someone as an immigrant is morally arbitrary.

We might define an immigrant as someone who comes to live in a foreign country, if that is helpful. Perhaps we talk regularly about people from foreign countries coming to live here, and so the word immigrant is a convenient shorthand. Perhaps we have an enthusiasm for tracking human migration patterns. But there is no moral significance that a person has crossed a national boundary.

We have conceptual boundaries everywhere. Every parcel of land has a boundary (recorded at the Land Registry). There are boundaries for political wards, and for city councils, and for counties. The national border is yet another boundary, no more or less important, morally, than any other. To say that an immigrant is ‘not one of us’ is merely to pick one boundary, arbitrarily, out of the all the boundaries available. And all of us cross boundaries every day.

Crossing a boundary might have legal consequences. One boundary might require a visa. Another boundary might convert a visitor into a trespasser. But these are not necessary consequences. We can choose which boundaries we create, and what consequences they have, if any.

For example, it might be prudent to police a national boundary, to preclude fugitives from escaping justice, or to prevent aspiring criminals from finding fresh targets. But this says nothing about the moral status of other immigrants. Indeed, it has nothing really to do with immigration, rather than law enforcement.

Some say that a national boundary signifies the extent of a shared history and culture. But we could talk about the shared history and culture of Devon, or Europe. Some people read and write about the history of the world, even the universe.

(Incidentally, if a culture is worth having, then celebrate it, and it will persist. If it is attractive, others will join.)

We are all immigrants. We all arrived here after others. Some of us through a birth canal, some of us on our own two feet. Why should that make a difference? True, we have no choice about where we are born. In law, we often forgive people’s actions when they had no choice. But we are not talking about excusing people for being born in Britain. Rather, some see nationality as an honour. Why should we bestow an honour on someone whose attainment was accidental, indeed whose attainment was done to them, rather than bestow it upon someone who made a conscious decision and determined effort to achieve it?

Finally, consider this scenario. A life boat is full. An extra person is trying to climb on board. This will cause the life boat to sink, and everyone will die. What next? Can the people on the life boat push off the extra person? That is not the only possible answer. It is not obviously the right answer. Perhaps the extra person can climb on board and push another off. Perhaps everyone involved ought to agree an outcome.

At any rate, Britain is not full. In terms of population density, it is less than successful territories like Singapore or Hong Kong or Israel, or large developed nations like Japan, or developing nations like India or Bangladesh or the Philippines, or European neighbours like Belgium or the Netherlands. And all this from a country which famously drinks tea (China), eats curry (India), whose best-selling car is a Ford (American), and whose premier football league is celebrated in large part because of the skills of its 69% immigrant players.

An immigrant is a person. And it matters, for example, whether or not a person is kind. But it does not matter whether they have crossed an imaginary line. We should stop imbuing the concept of immigration with a moral significance it does not deserve.

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