Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

UK's message to immigrants: Stay out

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
updated 11:40 AM EDT, Thu October 24, 2013
British Prime Minister David Cameron announces in March a new clampdown on immigration with plans to restrict benefits.
British Prime Minister David Cameron announces in March a new clampdown on immigration with plans to restrict benefits.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • British government had trucks carrying billboards exhorting illegal immigrants to go home
  • Ruben Navarrette: Public outcry led the government to stop the offensive campaign
  • But it still wants to drastically reduce the numbers of immigrants allowed in, he says
  • Navarrette: Nations that embrace immigration thrive; those that don't founder

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter @rubennavarrette.

San Diego (CNN) -- Just this summer, the British government was directly targeting illegal immigrants with a campaign that turned heads, and, in many cases, turned stomachs.

In an initiative designed to persuade illegal immigrants to pack up and voluntarily return to their home countries, officials deployed two trucks to drive around London for a week. Each vehicle carried a large billboard with the message: "In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest." Then it offered instructions to text the word "home" to a government-run number for "free advice and help with travel documents."

What was the free advice? Sounded like "Get the hell out!" Not exactly the Welcome Wagon, was it? The campaign stirred up so much public outcry that the government backtracked and decided to keep the trucks in the garage.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

But there's more, and it's still happening. According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, the Conservative Party of Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to reduce annual net migration to the United Kingdom. For the British, the problem is Eastern Europeans. The annual figure of newcomers is about 200,000. The conservatives want to bring it down to the tens of thousands.

This is just plain foolish. Just who does the British government think is going to swoop in and take over the jobs that are left behind if immigrants are run off? British citizens? Not blooming likely. By now, several generations of British citizens have grown up thinking of these kinds of jobs as beneath them and themselves as entitled to better. They're not going to miraculously change their way of thinking and find their way back to this kind of work just because the immigrants are gone.

European countries -- Great Britain, France, Germany, etc. -- don't have the best track record of dealing with racial and ethnic differences. Besides, it's not every day that a country puts up a "no vacancy" sign to keep out even those immigrants who come legally. Most countries like to at least maintain the pretense that they only have a problem with illegal entrants. If nothing else, this approach is refreshingly honest.

It seems that Americans haven't exactly cornered the market on bigotry and xenophobia.

Sure, we have our own peculiar issues with the foreign-born. It's not easy being a nation of immigrants that has, in reality, always despised immigrants. It's tough being a country that boasts about its diversity, and then does everything it can to boil it away in the fabled melting pot.

But we Americans are not alone in our narrow-mindedness. Just about every industrialized country on the globe vacillates between needing immigrants to do jobs that natives won't do and resenting the changes that immigrants bring with them.

Airport immigration troubles at Heathrow

Parts of the immigration debate playing out on the national and international stage are complicated. And yet this part is simple: Countries that encourage legal immigration, and make the process easier, will thrive. Those that pull up the drawbridge and put up barriers to keep out even immigrants who try to enter legally will founder.

Who says? Economists say so. Life experience says so. U.S. history says so. World history says so.

This is true of legal immigrants whether they come from China, Vietnam, India, Brazil or any other country.

Yet it is also the case with illegal immigrants, as former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan made clear in April 2009 when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security.

Greenspan said illegal immigration make a "significant" contribution to U.S. economic growth by providing a flexible workforce and that illegal immigrants act as a "safety valve" for the economy since demand for workers goes up and down.

"There is little doubt that unauthorized, that is, illegal, immigration has made a significant contribution to the growth of our economy," Greenspan said in calling for an overhaul of U.S. immigration laws.

We can assume Cameron's government didn't get the news.

After those trucks drove around six areas of London, humanitarian organizations, opposition parties and labor groups in the United Kingdom complained that the tactics were offensive and heavy-handed. They said they harked back to an ugly time in British history when nativist groups had much greater sway in the halls of government.

What a shame that this is what has become of a once-great nation and one of the world's great superpowers. Now the United Kingdom is in a defensive stance, trying to ward off invaders and hold on to what it has.

Contrast all this with what is happening in Israel. Consider the diversity of the tech corridor in Tel Aviv, where some of Silicon Valley's most successful companies come to poach workers and invest venture capital. Everywhere you go, you're reminded that Israel is one of the most diverse nations in the world and one with a proud immigrant tradition.

Israeli officials will tell you, without hesitation, that much of what has been accomplished in the country's lifespan of only 65 years can be attributed to the fact that this tiny country benefits from immigrants and draws the best and brightest from around the world.

Of course, no nation is perfect. The Israelis have their own problems with immigration. They struggle with the challenge of assimilation of refugees from Sudan and Ethiopia. But still, they understand the restorative power of immigration.

Meanwhile, at least the United Kingdom's government realized the error of its ways when it shelved the billboards. Government officials acknowledged that the message was too blunt and the results unconvincing.

Score one for decency and common sense. Don't you just love it when old Europe learns a new way of thinking?

Follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join Us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 3:27 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT