New UK bill on illegal immigrants: The lure of symbolic politics

The government’s proposed new measures to crack down on illegal immigrants are a textbook case of symbolic politics. Many have already pointed out that the measures are misdirected. The overwhelming ‘pull’ factor for migrants entering the UK (or any other country) is opportunities on the informal labour market. Plus, in many cases, the fact that they may have friends or relatives already settled in the country. So the effect of making it more difficult for such people to access accommodation, health treatment or other services will be to render them more susceptible to exploitation, or more reliant on other co-ethnics who can ill-afford additional obligations.

The second problem is that efforts to ‘steer’ social systems such as the housing market, the health service or banking system frequently produce distortions and counter-productive effects. See my article for BJPIR on the challenges of regulation in the area of illegal immigration.

Unfortunately, though, immigration control is a classic area in which populist rhetoric is decoupled from the more complex – and perhaps unpalatable – reality. It would take a brave politician to come out and try to explain the ways in which certain sectors of our economy are dependent on informal labour; or that liberal welfare states are severely restrained in their capacity to choke off access to fundamental services to any residents, including unauthorised ones. The one consolation is that the government’s draconian discourse will inevitably be accompanised by lax implementation of these measures in practice.

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