The immigration truth we don’t want to tackle
31 Jul 2011 The Sunday Times
The case of Rashida Chapti, the naturalised British woman who is demanding that her Indian husband be allowed to move here without having to meet new immigration rules requiring him to learn basic English, has set my liberal blood boiling.
I am all for immigration. I think people should be able to marry whom they choose and attempt to move around the globe when they can, whether for love, work or curiosity. I emigrated to Britain as a child and my British relations live with Trinidadians, Mozambicans, black Americans, white Americans, Sri Lankans, Chinese and Germans as well as other Brits. Two-thirds of the couples in my family, wherever they live, will always deal with the issue of fitting in with a foreign culture and adapting to it.
Fitting in is the key to making immigration work. It has to be done within the rules of the host country, with the acceptance of the host community and with sensitivity about the strains that newcomers impose. That’s not the way Britain has ever approached the issue, whether it was colonising the globe or admitting empire, Commonwealth and European Union citizens here. That’s why we’re in such a muddle over the right way to approach immigration policy now.
Timidity, shame and guilt have combined to leave us uncertain about what we can reasonably ask of people moving here. The emphasis has been on the rights of migrants and not on reciprocal* responsibilities. We have shied away from* the question of how to bring different peoples and cultures together, preferring to let newcomers in without offering them any guidance about how to make sense of British culture.
That’s been just fine for the international middle classes, who share a common experience anyway. It’s been a very bad idea for poorer immigrants, who have frequently been left stranded on the fringes without much clue about how to navigate any further. And it’s been bad for the people around them, who are often left resentful and bewildered about the intrusion of individuals who don’t share their assumptions and values. It’s no wonder that in some areas of Britain — Barking, Tower Hamlets, Bradford, Burnley — mutual suspicion and hostility can fester*.
This approach has to change. We have to be more honest about the terms on which immigration should happen and more frank about how to make it acceptable to the people already here. Fighting cases such as Rashida Chapti’s is the right way to start because they embody the unbalanced, rights-based context in which immigration has been allowed to happen.
Chapti qualified for naturalisation* six years ago through her parents, who had once lived in Malawi. She has been married for 37 years to a farmer from India, where he and their six children still live. Now that she has obtained British residency, she has applied to bring her husband here. His arrival is being blocked by a recent change in immigration laws requiring newcomers joining their families to prove they can speak a basic level of English before they arrive.
The rules were introduced by Labour to encourage greater integration and were intended to come into operation later this year. The coalition brought them forward to last November. Chapti, backed by the human rights group Liberty, is taking her husband’s case to the High Court, arguing that the requirement contravenes* her right to a private and family life under article 8 of the Human Rights Act. Her argument is that her husband’s inability to speak English is of no importance to the rest of us. She says that at 58 he is too old to learn and will not do so when he arrives.
Chapti, whose own English is not fluent, is indignant*. She says it is her right to be with her husband and she will fight the case until the law is overturned. Asked how her husband will cope without English, she said he could get a job as a machinist at the factory where she worked, adding that he would be a valued member of society when he arrived.
That last claim sums up the problem. Which society? Not the wider one, since he will be unable to communicate with or understand anything of the British world around him. He will remain locked into the subculture, wilfully* isolated from the rest of us, making no concessions to the fact that he is in another country.
The Chapti approach treats a country as if it were simply a piece of ground, which new arrivals have a right to occupy on their terms. It’s just as wrong and arrogant an approach as it was when undertaken by colonial powers a century ago. Her outrage at the idea that she and her husband should have to make even a basic effort to become part of British society is staggering*. But because Britain has until now made so little attempt to ask anything explicit of newcomers, or offer to help them integrate, her indifference is widely shared.
Last year a globetrotting friend of mine from a multiracial family went to the wedding of an Asian friend born here 45 years ago. Seeing her friend’s elderly mother sitting alone, she went to talk to her. She failed. The mother spoke no English after almost half a century here. She had not learnt more than six words.
My friend was incensed*: “If that mother had been forced to learn a little English before coming here as an illiterate Bangladeshi village girl, the whole course of her life would have been different. And perhaps the wedding itself would have been less tense. Because the entire family was furious that their son was marrying out to a white girl.”
Communities isolated by language matter because they are going to remain separate and deprived. In last month’s Prospect magazine, David Goodhart details the poor language skills and employment rate of the Pakistanis in Bradford, most of whom come from the deprived Mirpur region of Kashmir. Although the Mirpuris have lived in Bradford for three or four generations, only 15% of their children born in the town in 2009 had two Englishborn parents. Most adults are importing nonEnglish-speaking Pakistani cousins as spouses, so natural integration is not taking place. As Goodhart says, the consequence is that Bradford is producing a lot of “confused and sometimes delinquent young men”.
In both government and opposition there is a consensus that being so laissez-faire about immigration was a mistake. But there is great nervousness about how to do it differently. No one wants to raise racial tensions. The coalition has just produced a delicately phrased consultation paper on immigration, asking whether newcomers should have to wait longer and contribute more before getting full rights to settlement and benefits. Damian Green, the immigration minister, told me that we needed “tough action and moderate language. The last thing we want is hyperbolic* language — that ramps up* social tensions and would be irresponsible.”
He is right about the need for care, but Britain’s fear of discussing what is expected of all of us living here must be overcome. Our hesitation contrasts oddly with our foreign policy, where we have no compunction at all about imposing our values on the rest of the world. We are quite prepared to bomb the Taliban or Iraq into being more like us, or coerce other countries towards capitalism through the world trade talks and the International Monetary Fund.
Our priorities are the wrong way round. We have very little business telling other nations how to order their lives. But we have a deep responsibility to think about how we want to order our own. For too long we have shied away from that duty, preferring to avert our eyes from the real problems we have been creating. It’s time to face up to them.
Source: The Sunday Times of July 31, 2011
* reciprocal - gegenseitig
* to shy away from - zurückscheuen vor
* to fester - gären
* naturalisation - Einbürgerung
* to contravene - verletzen, in Widerspruch stehen
* indignant - entrüstet, empört
* wilfully - mutwillig, absichtlich
* staggering - atemberaubend, erstaunlich
* incensed - aufgebracht, erbost
* hyperbolic - übertreibend
* to ramp up - erhöhen, steigern
1. What is the case of Rashida Chapti about? Include her determination to take her case to the High Court.
2. Sum up the author's opinion on the question of how successful immigration can be achieved.
3. What have past British governments neglected to do in respect of immigration?
4. Why is it that only 15% of Mirpur Indian children born in Bradford have two English born patents?
5. What does the author refer to when writing: 'Our priorities are the wrong way round'?