Friday, 10 May 2013

The sledgehammer approach to immigration and social issues

Why do governments struggle to keep immigration issues in proportion?

In the aftermath of the Boston bombing, during which one Chinese student was killed and at least one other injured, there was a brief focus on how this might affect international students' perceptions of their safety in the US, a recognition that international students were victims of this awful crime.  But all too soon political representatives were calling for further restrictions on international student visa holders.  Although foreign nationals, neither of the perpetrators was in the US on a student visa.  But the fact a fellow-student on a lapsed student visa may have attempted to dispose of evidence relating to the accused has led to an immediate tightening of the system, with returning international students facing automatic checks of their visa status (and longer queues at airports).  Admittedly, it's hard to know where to start with home-grown terrorists, but sweeping up all half a million of the US's international students into the category "potential terrorist" is a bizarre over-reaction.

Meanwhile in the UK, similar attempts to appear tougher on immigrants, including international students, are evident in the measures announced in the Queen's speech to require private landlords to check tenants' immigration status, and to require migrants to "make a contribution" to the NHS.  The latter flies in the face of economic evidence to the contrary as frequently cited by Jonathan Portes, or for example the recent study of costs and benefits of international students in Sheffield - not to mention the contribution immigrant staff to keeping the NHS functioning...

As for the idea of asking landlords to check tenants' immigration status, it is hard to see how this could be made workable.  While this measure is not aimed at international students, many do use private sector accommodation at some point during their stay.  While large-scale private providers of student housing will no doubt find ways of coping with this additional layer of bureaucracy, smaller landlords will struggle - compare the situation with work visas after study, were most SMEs (and even large ones) fail to engage a visa system they find complex and confusing.  While many cities are seeing a contraction in the student housing market, and landlords may be keen to let, adding an additional bureaucratic hurdle will neither help them, nor international students (and quite possibly any other student who appears to a landlord to have a foreign name or face).  International students with families may be particularly vulnerable given the shortage of institution-managed family accommodation

If governments fail to keep these issues in proportion, and come up with crowd-pleasing gesture politics, is this matched by similar knee-jerk reactions among the public?  We know that public perceptions of immigration are much more nuanced (as the Migration Observatory has shown).  Let's hope the government's proposals get something of a reality check before they reach the statute book.