Saturday, August 29, 2015

"Are Such Things Done on Albion's Shore?"

In the increasingly overheated and carnivalesque atmosphere of immigration politics in this country (is “carnivalesque” too fond a word for casual proposals of mass population transfers and the eradication of birthright citizenship?—well, the medieval charivari was no pretty thing either – it too tended to involve the ritual humiliation of “outsiders”), it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the U.S. is no worse in this respect than most of the world’s wealthy and powerful nations, and it may be considerably better. Indeed, the very “stir” that Trump’s blustering has caused this summer has itself stood as evidence that many, if not most people in this country see him as beyond the pale. Compare this bombastic but ultimately substance-less American scene with the case of Britain, which has quietly unveiled its own version of the “Trump Plan” this past month -- except there it was not announced by an extremist candidate who, though he might sink his own party, will never win a national election—not, that is, by the BNP and its ilk, but by the Tory government in power. Compare the fact that while Trump has been fairly widely reviled in this country, the British plan is being reported with remarkable dispassion by mainstream and left-liberal outlets. Notice the fact that while Democrats have pounded away against Trump, voices in the UK Labour opposition, far from denouncing the basic orientation of Cameron's plan, have in some cases complained that it does not go far enough. Observe, finally, that while Trump's plan is disturbing as an exhibition of chauvinistic, but probably unrealizable fantasies, Cameron's plan will most likely be implemented.

Despite the fact that only one in a hundred employed workers in Britain is undocumented, according to the BBC, David Cameron has apparently decided that drastic measures must be taken to bar this small and vulnerable population from gaining access to the most basic needs and services in the country. His version of the Trump plan includes such methods as automatic eviction for undocumented migrants from all rental properties, based solely on their immigration status, up to six months in prison for working "illegally," and fines and jail terms of up to five years for any landlord who rents to undocumented people or who fails to throw them out as soon as he or she learns of their immigration status (these would be the "unscrupulous landlords" we talked about). Not content to rest with persecuting irregular migrants, however, the plan also goes after plenty of regular ones -- it declares for instance that non-EU immigrants working in the UK (hitherto with official sanction), will now be deported after five years -- unless, and this seems especially warped, they have managed to scrape together a £35,000 annual income by that point. The government has evidently decided it will punish people for being poor as well as for being born in a different country.

While Britons seem to be very worried about what they will do for health care once all the nurses are shipped back to Libya and Eritrea under the 35,000 rule, the news coverage I've seen so far reckons very little with what this will mean for the nurses themselves, and for the thousands of others who will be affected. We can write the words down -- "deportation," "eviction" -- and no doubt make them sound fair and reasonable in the process, but the wrenching human costs when they come will belie such claims. I'm not talking just about the unintended catastrophes that will inevitably attend, sooner or later, any attempted mass transfer of people that a government undertakes -- such as when a boat full of deported people is capsized at sea, or a van-load of others die of asphyxiation, or a plane crashes -- as in the notorious 1948 incident at Los Gatos that inspired the plaintive Woody Guthrie song "Deportee." I'm talking about the violence inherent in displacement itself. It is no small thing to remove people forcibly from their homes, though in my case it took reaching a certain age and point in life to understand viscerally what a grave thing that is to inflict on people.

The UK government, in laying out its immigration plan, seems to have avoided some of the more crass rhetoric and racial dog-whistling of Trump and sections of the GOP, choosing instead to justify its measures as a way of eliminating "exploitation" from the UK labor and housing market -- if anything, however, this repackaging makes it all the more insidious and all the more likely to be put into practice than Trump's plan.

For one thing, the appeal on the grounds of "exploitation" seems to have succeeded in blunting the criticism one might have expected to come from the British left. The left-liberal Guardian's reporting on the new immigration plan is an odd mix, for one, with the paper denouncing the government in places, while at the same time mirroring its rhetoric about "unscrupulous landlords" and employers. Meanwhile, their chief objection to the so-called "Right to Rent" scheme (the purpose of which, bear in mind, is to deny the right to rent to undocumented migrants, not to vouchsafe it to anyone) seems to be that in the places where it's been tried out, this scheme hasn't worked. (To me, its incompetence seems its only virtue: the best avenue for all our hopes in the case of Cameron's plan is that, like most immigration enforcement programs, it will be poorly executed, riddled with human error, and defeated in small ways on a day-to-day level by the humanitarian scruples of the people who are tasked with executing it. For all that governments make tub-thumping promises of workplace raids, of deportations, of evictions, of jail sentences, the enforcement agents who actually have to clap migrant families in irons will probably prefer to turn a blind eye now and then. This is not to deny, however, that thousands of immigrants will actually suffer along the way from the castles in Spain (and detention camps elsewhere) that politicians build by means of their puffery.)

Thanks to some clever rhetorical positioning, Cameron's immigration plan has thus slipped under the radar of international (and British) outrage. The stuff goes down with the left more easily when it speaks with an Etonian accent, it would seem, than when it is delivered in Trump's unmistakable bray, but in truth, Cameron's plan is far more extreme than anything American anti-immigrant hardliners could actually succeed in putting into place. I can't really imagine a near and plausible future in which an American President could get away with making it a criminal offense purely to work as or rent property to an undocumented person (after all, even the enormous immigrant detention centers our country operates are not officially penal institutions, our government must claim, even if they operate exactly like and are maintained by the same private companies that run our nation's prisons). The advocacy community in the U.S. is too strong, the demographics of American elections too unmistakable, for anyone to get away with such a program (pogrom?)

I would not have guessed that Britain would be so different in this regard, but the lack of an outcry suggests that the UK's undocumented population is actually more vulnerable even than our own, and far less well served by in-country advocates. While immigrant rights activists in the US seem to have changed the discussion so much in a short space of time that even Trump now has to inconsistently pander to the idea that he only wishes to deport "criminal aliens," etc.-- Cameron's plan criminalizes undocumented status itself -- or at least, criminalizes having the gall to try to work or find an apartment while being undocumented -- without even half-heartedly seeking to posture his way around it.

For all that Europe is so often looked up to by this country's left as a source of greater enlightenment, then, and for all that Britain is supposed to be the sort of place where this kind of formal, group-based discrimination just does not and cannot happen, it is not obvious that most British commentators are particularly troubled on moral grounds at the thought of tearful families of immigrants being ejected from their homes and their landlords sent to jail for renting to them. "The weeping parents wept in vain. /Are such things done on Albion’s shore?" (Blake)

But perhaps the landlords and employers really are unscrupulous in many cases? Maybe they do exploit undocumented workers as a way to keep wages and benefits low -- maybe some landlords really do rent to irregular migrants because they know that the latter are at the mercy of the informal housing economy and have no legal recourse if their tenant rights are violated, so anyone who rents to them doesn't have to worry so much about clearing out the asbestos, about fire and safety regulation, about structural integrity and zoning, etc.?

Unquestionably, the answer is yes in all these cases, but punishing undocumented migrants for their own exploitation is a pretty twisted way of "protecting" them from it. In any case, the reason why undocumented people are more likely to find themselves in sub-code houses that the slumlord owner has never inspected for lead paint, etc., and the reason why they are more vulnerable to wage theft, sexual harassment, sub-standard pay is precisely because they are not recognized as legal residents. It is their undocumented status, and not the fact of who they are and where they come from, that permits their exploitation, keeps them from organizing, and drives down their (and ultimately, other workers') wages.

Cameron's plan, we note, does not promise better enforcement of safety regulations and minimum wage laws and building codes from which everyone who is employed or lives in an apartment in Britain -- documented and undocumented alike -- might benefit, which would be the obvious course to take if he was actually motivated by a concern with "exploitation." Quite to the contrary, it focuses on trying to remove undocumented people even further from the formal economy where they might benefit from such regulations. The truly "unscrupulous" landlords and employers are thus the ones who benefit from policies like Cameron's--- policies that will push thousands of migrant families into the black market to look for work and housing, where they will have no legal protections whatsoever. -- But that's assuming, of course, that they could find jobs or apartments at all, at whatever remove from legality and regulation, under the new rules. A more obvious consequence of Cameron's plan, if it is actually implemented to the full extent he promises, would be to create a million-strong new underclass of the permanently homeless and unemployed, refused shelter and a meal wherever they go by people terrified by the threat of jail-time. (But then, nobody ever said that Britain's streets were "paved with gold," as two of Europe's foreign ministers put it.)

Which brings me back, by the way, to a point recently harped upon in verse on this blog, which is that any landlord/lady who actually did place herself on the line in this way after Cameron's plan is passed -- who refused to throw out a family of renters just because she learned they were living there without papers -- who risked five years of prison because she refused to discriminate against applicants on the basis of migration status -- such a person would ipso facto be a hero, it seems to me, whatever her motivation, and not at all an "unscrupulous" character.

None of this has anything to do officially, of course, with Britain's stance toward the refugee crisis currently unfolding across Europe (and the world)-- nor will it affect people who fall into the formal category of "refugees" -- again, officially. Whatever plan Cameron institutes, the UK will remain legally compelled, like all other parties to the 1951 Refugee Convention, to provide asylum to people fleeing conflict and persecution in their native countries. This matter of welcoming asylum-seekers is not really one of politics at all, therefore, or ought not to be, but rather of straightforward legal and moral obligation. As with all matters concerning the distribution of resources, however, it has inevitably entered the realm of politics (which is, in Harold Lasswell's famously cynical definition, at base the art of "who gets what, when, how"), and so Cameron's immigration rules are almost certainly designed as a way of quieting the rising alarmism among the chattering classes with regard to the "Mediterranean Crisis" and the "Calais Crisis," and not really about Britain's undocumented population at all -- unless one is really persuaded that the presence of 600,000 to 1 million irregular but "voluntary" migrants in the UK borders somehow suddenly became an existential threat to the British way of life this month. Cameron's new rules are thus of a piece (politically and rhetorically at least) with his government's equally ungenerous policy toward the mass exodus of people reaching Europe in flight from atrocities in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere.

Britain's actions in such a moment -- one that poses such a basic test of humanitarian conscience -- are deplorable -- but no worse than Australia's and some others; and the U.S., of course, is likewise no exemplar, when it persistently works to discourage, impede, and banish the asylum seekers who arrive at its Southern Border -- so much for the New Colossus.

Indeed, none of us who live in and benefit from the resources of the world's wealthy countries has any great position from which to be self-righteous in these matters, whether collectively or as individuals. I, for one, should probably sign over my next paycheck directly to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees or to Médicins sans frontières, if I really mean what I say. I could get by financially if I did so -- after all, my government has not passed a law making it illegal to rent to me or for me to seek employment. But I know that I won't do it, all the same, and will instead spend the rest of the day feeling a warm inner glow of nobility because I wrote this obscure blog post.

When the stakes are as high as they are at present, however -- when they involve the lives of millions of people in this world where conflict, barrel-bombs, ISIS, Assad, and Saudi and Iraqi warplanes are everyone's problem and responsibility -- where your bombed village is my own and might even have been bombed by or because of my own government -- there is not much good that can come of fretting over one's moral inconsistencies. To the contrary, there is a great need for more of the sort of political hypocrisy that is, after all, vice's tribute to virtue, as they say. We need to stand up for policies that compel us to be more generous than we'd always like to be. As Vachel Lindsay once bid us, in explaining why he "Voted the Socialist Ticket": "My life’s unkind, but I can vote for kindness./ I, that am unloving, say life should be lovely/ I, who am blind, cry out against my blindness. [...] Come, let us vote against our human nature."

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