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By Theodore Dalrymple

The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism.

Oh, to be in England

Theodore Dalrymple
The Dumbest Immigration Policy
Winter 2001

The British attitude to immigration and immigrants has always been grudging, a mixture of xenophobia and socialist zero-sum economics. Britons have traditionally regarded the desire of foreigners to come to their shores as more of a threat than a compliment; and because they conceive of a national economy as a cake of predetermined size, they believe that the immigrants' slice must of necessity take the crumbs from their mouths.

In times of unemployment, immigrants are said to take our jobs by undercutting wages; in times of full employment, they are said to take advantage of our generous social security system and thus drive up our taxes. They either work too hard, or not hard enough. They can therefore never arrive at the right moment in the economic cycle; and for this reason, the Hong Kong Chinese were denied British citizenship at the time of the return of the colony to China. Britain viewed the skills, work habits, and capital of the Hong Kong Chinese as a menace rather than an opportunity of unparalleled proportions, the like of which will not soon present itself to any other nation.

Of course, the empirical evidence that refutes the pessimistic, xenophobic, and implicitly socialist attitude to immigration is everywhere visible: indeed, in a certain sense, it has become part of the fabric of everyone's life in Britain. Indian immigrants now own practically every small street-corner grocery in the country, even in the smallest and remotest settlements. There has, of course, been no conspiracy to take over: merely a willingness on the part of the immigrants to work hard and offer a better service than existed before. No Indian shopkeeper would shut his shop while a single customer remained: whereas native British shopkeepers used to delight in closing early, precisely to let their customers know who was boss. The customers could bloody well come back tomorrow if they really wanted anything.

The triumph of the Indian shopkeepers was not altogether surprising in the circumstances, and as a result of it the quality of everyone's life improved slightly. Even the fiercest xenophobe would not willingly forgo Indian corner shops, any more than he would forgo the ubiquitous Indian restaurants that have transformed British eating habits. Surveys show that young people in Britain now consider curry as their national dish.

Many a small business has been the launching pad of the next generation's career in the professions and elsewhere. For example, the parents of the majority of the Indian medical students whom I teach (and Indians make up a quarter of all British medical students) own corner stores, often in dismal provincial towns. In these unromantic establishments, romantic dreams are dreamed.

The most startling of recent immigration success stories was that of the Ugandan Asians, expelled from their African Eden by the sanguinary dictator Idi Amin, a strong believer (along with most development economists of the time) in zero-sum economics. At independence, Britain had given British passports to the Ugandan Asians who wanted them—traders, engineers, petty officials—but it tried hard subsequently to evade its moral responsibilities when Idi Amin threatened the Asians with death if they did not leave. Eventually, if with an ill will, Britain allowed them into the country, and within a handful of years they were thriving mightily. I remember meeting a man who had arrived from Uganda with his family a few years before with the princely sum of $7 in his pocket and who had amassed a $100 million fortune by manufacturing blue jeans. His story was by no means unique.

The mass upward mobility of immigrants in Britain is not a new phenomenon: it has happened many times before. It happened to the Irish, and to an even greater extent it happened to the Jews. Mrs. Thatcher represented a constituency in Parliament that was largely Jewish and extremely prosperous. But the parents or grandparents of almost all her constituents would have been poor immigrants to the East End of London from the Pale of Settlement in Russia, who arrived at the turn of the twentieth century to live in conditions of physical poverty and squalor quite unknown today. Herself the daughter of an aspiring small shopkeeper in Lincolnshire, she was well placed to appreciate that birth is not destiny, and that the hope of upward mobility is the engine of economic progress.

In light of such remarkable success, you might suppose that the British would welcome the arrival of enterprising people: but you would be wrong. In Britain, nothing fails like success. And so a curious de facto alliance has emerged between the out-and-out xenophobes and the left-wing liberal intelligentsia that effectively limits immigration and lends plausibility to its bad reputation among the population.

The xenophobes fear that strangers will so swamp the country that the original inhabitants will no longer be able to recognize it as their own. They do not believe in the absorptive capacity of the country to transform people into creative contributors to British culture and traditions. They fear the balkanization of their own land.

This is a possibility, but it is not inevitable. The medical students of Indian origin, for example, are invariably more attached to and deeply versed in traditional British culture than their "native" colleagues, because their parents so desperately wished them to be. Though these students are bilingual, their English is almost always more cultivated than that of their classmates. They are considerably less susceptible to the allure of modern popular culture—which is more of a solvent of traditional culture than immigration could ever be—than are their "more British" fellows. Their parents have sent them to music and drama lessons, and they straddle two cultures with great aplomb. Far from being a threat to British culture, they are the brightest hope of its preservation and development.

The successful cultural negotiation such people accomplish pleases neither the racist xenophobe nor the multiculturalist liberal, who are united in the belief that assimilation is wrong in principle and impossible in practice. The former wants there to be no foreign presence at all; the latter wants to preserve the foreignness of foreigners, thus provoking the very xenophobia he claims to decry and despise.

The multiculturalist liberal believes that all cultures are equal, except for his own, which is uniquely wicked and imperialist. Assimilation, in his view, would be yet another despicable instance of cultural imperialism—but, of course, it would also throw doubt upon his own world outlook, which he has adopted precisely to establish his own superior broad-mindedness and tolerance. After all, my Indian medical students who know Shakespeare and speak what used to be called the King's English might suggest to him that the very people whose culture he claims to defend often see great value in the culture (to say nothing of the institutions) he is defending them from, and that therefore his presuppositions are profoundly mistaken. Keeping foreigners in cultural ghettos is thus a necessity for him, if he is to preserve his self-regard. And it is not difficult to find bureaucratic entrepreneurs in every group (that is to say, the "community leaders") whose personal interests coincide with his own. There are fortunes to be made even in a ghetto.

Of course, if all cultures are equal, migration is itself a mystery, since it occurs (at least en masse) in one direction only. To preserve the division of the world into victims and victimizers, therefore, it is intellectually imperative to keep migrants in a state of the most complete dependence possible. And that is precisely what British immigration policy seems designed to do, at least when seen from close up. The last thing liberals need or want is sturdily self-reliant people who do not require their help. A successful but invisible minority, such as the Chinese, is not grist to the mill and provides neither moral sustenance for the outrage of the bien pensant nor career opportunities for the professional righters of wrongs. Useful to the economy, the Chinese are useless to careerists.

Self-reliance is not a quality that recommends itself to British immigration officials, either. For example, the law specifically prohibits doctors who come to Britain for further training from seeking to stay permanently in the country once they have completed their course, even though the nation labors under a national shortage of such trained doctors and has the money available to pay them.

An Egyptian colleague of mine, who became a friend, was granted the standard five-year visa for his training. At the end of this period, he decided that he would like to stay in Britain, and he furnished the immigration department with many well-deserved testimonials both to his professional competence and to his good character. But the immigration department pursued him with pedantic ferocity, until he was obliged to leave and never to return. He went to Australia, and so the country's insufficiency of trained people in his field was exacerbated.

Not long ago, a young woman was admitted to my ward, having taken an overdose. Her reason: her husband was about to be arrested, imprisoned, and deported for being an illegal immigrant.

He was indeed illegally in the country, having arrived from Pakistan seven years previously. A trained electronics engineer, he had soon found himself a job and was now earning some $60,000 a year, on which he paid income tax. A year after his arrival, he had married and now had two children. He had saved money and paid a large deposit on a house. Neither he nor his wife had ever claimed a penny from the state. Apart from his illegal presence, he was a model citizen.

The immigration authorities caught up with him, however. For a time, while his case was considered, he had to report weekly to the local police station. The immigration authorities admitted that, having married a British citizen, he would have a right to reenter the country, but they demanded that he return to Pakistan and apply for such entry, which would take between two and four years (depending, in practice, upon how successfully he bribed the Pakistani officials at the British Embassy in Pakistan). The final rejection of his appeal, which was imminent, would result in his detention prior to deportation.

It surely required but a moment's thought to realize the consequences of this proposed course of action: his wife and children would be at once dependent upon the state, which they had never been before; his children would be deprived of their father at a crucial period of their development; his savings would probably be dissipated; and his company would lose the services of a trained engineer. None of this could remotely be construed as being in the national interest.

But the law, it might be argued, is the law: and he had broken it. To allow him to stay would only have encouraged others to follow suit. Fortunately, a letter I wrote to the Home Secretary averted his deportation, but had my personal appeal failed, the man undoubtedly would have been deported as a menace to good order.

It is difficult not to conclude that what particularly offended the authorities about this man was his obvious self-reliance and independence. For the fact is that they deal with most cases of illegal immigration quite differently, provided only that the illegal immigrants accept with perfect passivity the meager generosity of the welfare system, as administered by its vast bureaucracy.

Illegal immigrants are arriving in ever greater numbers in Britain (as the recent death of more than 50 Chinese in a refrigerated container, discovered in Dover, eloquently testifies). It is now the most popular destination in Europe, mainly because the deportation process takes so long that in practice deportation rarely happens.

The immigrants—predominantly from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, but also from Africa—are smuggled into the country in trucks and containers, so many of which arrive every day that effective checking is impossible. Once landed, the immigrants descend from their trucks or containers, walk into the nearest police station, and claim political asylum. Even if they come from countries in which political persecution no longer occurs, the authorities cannot dismiss their claims summarily. Instead, officials distribute them to hostels and cheap lodging houses around the country, where they receive clothes, food, and a small allowance, on strict condition that they do not work. To take paid employment is practically the only thing they can do to ensure summary deportation.

The effect of their enforced dependence is extraordinary. If anyone should doubt the existence of a dependency culture or its power to subvert the human personality, he should visit one of the hotels in which the illegal immigrants are held in iron hoops of induced helplessness.

Several such hotels cluster near the hospital in which I work. They used to house alcoholics—true communitarians, who staggered the collection of their social security among themselves, so that they never had to go a day without cheap but potent cider. The owners of the hotels discovered, however, that illegal immigrants provided a better and easier living: they were less trouble, and you could put more of them into a room.

They sometimes come to my hospital as patients. In many ways, they are remarkable people: young, fit men, they are usually intelligent, often speaking four or five languages, and they have braved very difficult and even dangerous conditions to come to Britain. For an Iraqi Kurd to reach our shores, for example, takes courage and enterprise.

I recently talked to one such Kurd. He had escaped into Turkey and found work in Istanbul, poorly paid because illegal. There he saved the money to pay a smuggler to get him into Britain on a truck, about $2,000 in all. He was clearly not a man lacking in resourcefulness.

He had been in Britain eight months, in one of the hotels near my hospital. Though he spoke Kurdish, Arabic, Turkish, and Greek, he had learned hardly a word of English, and—through an interpreter—I asked him why.

He told me that, in fact, he had attended lessons, laid on free of charge for such as he, but he soon dropped out. Why? The bus fare to the lessons would have taken up much of his allowance money, he replied, and the classes were half an hour's walk away—and sometimes it rained, or was cold, or was windy.

The English weather, it seemed, accomplished in a short time what poison gas attacks, Turkish hostility toward Kurds, and a long clandestine journey had been unable to do: turn him into a passive, helpless human being. But, of course, it wasn't the weather that had done it: it was the months of dependence in the hotel, with nothing to do, but with a basic subsistence provided. And men in precisely his situation have told me many times just what he told me.

In his hotel were people who had vegetated for years in a state of suspended animation, quarrelsome and bitter when, as sometimes happened, one of the would-be immigrants suddenly received an apartment, furniture, and a color television for no very obvious reason. Why him and not the others? The workings of the system were entirely capricious and arbitrary.

Capricious and arbitrary as the system might be, it serves several contradictory needs at once. It keeps immigrants invisible and off the job market, where they might arouse the resentment of the xenophobes. It also satisfies the need of liberals to believe that their country provides asylum for the downtrodden and persecuted of the world, though in most cases it is impossible for a British bureaucrat to determine whether a person claiming asylum has been, or is in danger of being, persecuted. The assumption of virtue, however, is more important to the liberal than the performance of good; and he is always more interested in generosity in the abstract than in human reality in its messy details. These advantages aside, the consignment of people to such limbo is a vicious policy that profoundly damages them.

The economic costs to the country are considerable. Not only are people who almost by definition are potential assets turned into actual liabilities, burdening the taxpayer, but perverse incentives are put into place. Recently, I saw a Romanian television program extolling Britain as a suitable place for Romanians to go, precisely because they would be better off there, doing absolutely nothing, than if they remained working in Romania. Life as a Romanian immigrant to Britain was like life under a more abundant form of communism, and without the agitprop: three meals a day and no questions asked or duties to perform.

This extraordinary system, which assiduously deports productive people, turns potentially productive people into drones, and encourages the lazy to arrive, results from a combination of sentimentality and mean-mindedness, a peculiarly British combination.

The sentimentality consists of believing that the purpose of immigration is to provide succor for the persecuted rather than opportunity for the enterprising, and that we can truly do good only when we act against our own interests, or when it costs us something tangible to do so. Not surprisingly, the demand for persecuted people duly produces a supply, since to claim persecution brings advantages, however small they might be. That there is no infallible way to distinguish the genuine cases from the fraudulent ones causes the liberal sentimentalist no particular anxiety: he wants to feel generous, not to be generous.

The mean-mindedness consists of the dismal, pessimistic view that wealth is static, not dynamic (a view very widespread in Britain), and that immigrants can only consume wealth, not create it. The mean-mindedness also partakes of the fundamentally racist view that immigration is a cultural threat, because culture is passed on through the blood rather than through the mind. As extreme French nationalists have put it, no Jew can ever truly understand Racine, because his ancestors came from Poland or Russia rather than from Gaul.

There is a simple resolution to the dilemmas of immigration: to allow people entry, but to offer them no public help whatever—other than the permission to work—until they have paid taxes for several years. Those who were truly persecuted and in danger of their lives would surely accept the bargain, and British bureaucrats would no longer have to adjudicate the unanswerable question of whether an individual Algerian was tortured by the government, by the Muslim fundamentalists, or by no one at all. Asylum for the truly persecuted would be automatically available.

As for other immigrants, only the enterprising or hardworking would come. Unease about parasites who no sooner arrive than cost the country money would cease; and the lack of public assistance would promote mutual aid among immigrant groups, who would help their compatriots on condition that they deserved it.

Such a policy would, of course, require the abandonment of the sentimental view of people as victims rather than agents and of the socialist view that one man's wealth is another man's poverty. The xenophobe believes people to be a liability; the liberal needs them to be.

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