Turning migrants into status symbols

The ‘I Love Migrants’ campaign confirms that being ‘pro-migrant’ is now a form of cultural snobbery.

Who would wear a t-shirt declaring ‘I Love Migrants’?

Migrants wouldn’t, since most of them are more interested in finding work, fitting in and starting a family rather than emblazoning their ‘migrant status’ across their chests. Those of us, like spiked, who believe in complete freedom of movement probably wouldn’t either, since our interest is not in treating migrants as little children who need our ‘love’ but in defending their right, as free, rational adults, to traverse the globe as they see fit. Most working-class voters wouldn’t either, because although they work and interact and form relationships with migrants every day, many of them have pressing questions about immigration as a policy that they would like to ask our leaders.

So, who are these t-shirts - designed in the style of the classic ‘I Heart NY’ t-shirts and launched by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants in the run-up to the UK General Election - aimed at? They’re for Respectable Society, the elevated middle classes and the political elite, who have turned one’s attitudes to migrants into a barometer of how decent, respectable and moral one is. ‘Loving migrants’ is a new kind of status symbol, a declaration of one’s superior cosmopolitan outlook in contrast to what the ‘I Love Migrants’ website describes as the easily manipulated ‘fear’ of ordinary voters. This new campaign confirms the extent to which the political class now expresses its cultural supremacy through being ‘pro-immigration’ and has in the process turned migrants into little more than its ethical playthings.

‘I Love Migrants’ was launched online last week. Its aims are to spread facts rather than fear about migrants in Britain and to encourage our political leaders to avoid discussing immigration in a ‘wildly irresponsible’ way. It has produced t-shirts, badges and bags emblazoned with the ‘I Love Migrants’ logo as well as a downloadable postcard that we are encouraged to sign and send to our MPs. The postcard expresses ‘concern about the very negative representation of immigration in the current election debate’ and calls on our MPs to avoid ‘scapegoating migrants’ and ‘attacking migration to appease voters tempted by the extreme right’. In short, MPs should not politicise immigration, which would only stir up the dangerous passions of British-born voters, and instead should ‘keep to the facts’. ‘I Love Migrants’ has supplied 10 facts which MPs can safely spout at election time.

What is most striking is how narrow, partial and even illiberal the discussion about immigration becomes when it is just about facts. The 10 facts put forward by ‘I Love Migrants’ include ‘migration is good for the economy’ (it ‘fills skills gaps’), ‘migration is good for business’ (because migrants are ‘hardworking and reliable’), and ‘migration is good for the public purse’ (migrants pay more in taxes than they use in public services). All of this might well be correct, but by making our ‘love’ for migrants dependent on their economic usefulness, this campaign treats real human beings as little more than ‘economic benefits’ - clearly the newfound ‘love’ for migrants is a conditional one. If you put forward a narrowly economic justification for migration, rather than one based on the political categories of liberty and equality, then you can’t be surprised, especially in an era of recession, when other people ask in response: can the economy now cope with any more migrants?

Indeed, ‘I Love Migrants’ even seems to support some of the government’s clampdowns on free movement in its attempt to convince the possibly irrational electorate about the economic benefits of immigration. Another fact is that ‘migration is good for wages’. Apparently, ‘migration has led to better wages for high and medium skilled employees while having only a very slight or negligible negative impact for the low paid’. And why has it had only a negligible negative impact for poorer workers? Because ‘the government has prevented unskilled workers migrating to the UK from outside the EU’, the ‘I Love Migrants’ website rather uncritically informs us. So they don’t love all migrants. They don’t love the unskilled ones who probably wouldn’t be economically beneficial for Britain.

When you profess ‘love’ for ‘economically useful’ migrants - rather than political support for individuals’ right to free movement - you can end up giving the nod to measures that punish people who are deemed economically problematic. It’s no wonder that even Phil Woolas, Labour’s immigration minister who has overseen the introduction of the punitive points system for migrants since 2008, supports the ‘I Love Migrants’ campaign - because it seems you can ‘love’ migrants while also telling some of them to fuck off. Indeed, this sums up Labour’s approach to immigration more broadly: it celebrates a certain amount of immigration as culturally and economically beneficial while also scaremongering about uncontrolled immigration. And it does both of these things in order to control and/or flatter what it imagines to be the unthinking, anti-immigration, working-class mass.

The ‘I Love Migrants’ campaign should remind us that the debate about immigration does need to be politicised. Currently it’s all about facts and economic pie charts and keeping the discussion as sedate as possible in order to avoid angering the apparently intolerant masses. Consequently the issue of immigration looks to most ordinary people like an elite, expert concern that they are apparently not trustworthy enough to engage with. No wonder immigration is increasingly the issue through which everyday voters express their disgruntlement with the snobbish, distrustful oligarchy that rules over us. As a result of the depoliticisation of immigration, one word that appears nowhere on the ‘I Love Migrants’ site is freedom, and yet this is the key thing about migration - the fact that it is an expression of free will and human agency by individuals who need to or want to move around the globe. We should support that expression of freedom rather than judging whether the end result of the migrants’ journey will or will not be good for the ‘public purse’.

But then, this campaign - like the political class’s newfound ‘love’ for migrants more broadly - is not about politics or liberty or equality. It is about demonstrating one’s elevated levels of open-mindedness against the ‘emotiveness’ and potential prejudices of the Daily Mail-reading lower orders. As I argued in my recent ‘Question Everything’ essay on immigration, ‘Amongst the elite, taking a “pro-immigrant” stance has become a way of espousing its supposedly superior values of cosmopolitanism, liberalism, official tolerance and official anti-racism, and of disciplining and policing those who do not possess such values’.

In the absence of any ‘emotive’ political debate about freedom and choice and the role of the state, what can wearing a t-shirt saying ‘I Love Migrants’ really mean? That I am better than you, superior to you, more rational than you. Migrants are dehumanised, turned not only into narrow ‘benefits’ for the British economy, but also into slogans and mascots and pets for a political class keen to distance itself from the moronic masses.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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