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 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT