The Guardian on the limits of immigration ‘control’

Today’s (or yesterday’s) Guardian published this article by Alan Gamlen, a New Zealand academic, on Tory attempts to look ‘tough’ on immigration, while balancing competing interests between the anti-immigration and pro-immigration groups, particularly those who argue the economic case for immigration. Gamlen writes:

As migration scholars such as Stephen Castles have long highlighted, governments often do this through deliberately incoherent immigration policies: they talk tough to appease anti-immigration groups, but follow up with impracticable controls so that continuing immigration pleases immigration advocates. Blaming others for quashing grand nationalist plans makes failure looks heroic.

This is similar to what I’ve argued here and here. But I think Gamlen misses out something here. While he correctly asserts that immigration control policies are incoherent and being tough is in many ways ‘impracticable’ because migration is continually required (and allowed in many ways) by the UK, immigration control is also not ‘weak’ – there are circumstances where immigration controls are indeed restrictive and impact negatively upon certain groups of migrants. The experience of asylum seekers and migrants from the developing world show that immigration control can be ‘tough’ and that these groups, often deemed ‘undesirable’ by the authorities, are more likely to bear brunt of immigration control, even though there might be little change in overall net migration figures.

As Marinella Marmo and I have written in our forthcoming article for Historical Research journal (reflecting on immigration control in the 1970s, but still apt today):

It has been undesirable and unfeasible for the British Government to completely halt immigration, particularly as Britain joined the EEC, and much of the Government’s actions during the 1970s (and to this today) was to give the effect that ‘something’ was being done about immigration. The reality of immigration control policy and practice in 1970s was that it was essentially the result of competing factors within British society, primarily striking a balance between placating anti-immigrationist attitudes, socio-economic concerns, pressure from migrant communities and foreign governments and maintaining the image of the Government as a fair and equitable governing body, while being strict on the perceived ‘open door’ of immigration. As David Renton has argued:

It has often been assumed that the purpose of immigration controls was primarily to restrict the entry of migrants. If this was the goal, then the controls must be deemed a failure. After each new law, new migrants have arrived… Controls may not have reduced the numbers settling, but if their point was in fact to guide public opinion, to show that something ‘tough’ was being done, they have been a success.[i]

However in the process of this maintaining this myth of sovereignty, immigration control, while not effective in keeping all migrants out, has pushed its ‘desire for order’ upon certain migrant groups who have been considered ‘undesirable’. As Virginie Guiraudon and Gallya Lahav have argued, states have ‘devised a number of ways to circumvent normative constraints’[ii] and the state uses the transitional ‘space’ of the border control system to exert power – stretching the rules and guidelines of appropriate behaviour, applying pressure and scrutiny to those migrants who are the most ‘marginal’, tinkering with the laws to limit who is considered ‘desirable’. By using controls to determine the migrant’s subordinate status, the controversies of the 1970s demonstrate that there are very real victims of this ambivalent system.


[i] David Renton, ‘Labour Migration: A Historical Perspective’, (accessed 11 March, 2009).

[ii] Virginie Guiraudon & Gallya Lahav, ‘A Reappraisal of the State Sovereignty Debate: The Case of Migration Control’, Comparative Political Studies, 33/2 (March 2000) 164.

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