Do Good Fences Make Good Neighbours?

A motivation for the Brexit vote was a desire to see the UK border tightened

When he was nine years old, future Home Secretary Alan Johnson’s mother, Lily Johnson, witnessed an Antiguan carpenter called Kelso Cochrane be accosted by a gang of Teddy boys on the corner of Southam Street and Golborne Road in Notting Hill. Lily shouted at the gang to leave Kelso alone. But upon recognising one of the Teddy boys, a man who had a reputation for violence, she ran back home, fearful of being attacked herself. Kelso died that night. Nobody was ever charged with his murder.

Notting Hill in the 1950s was a hotbed of racial tensions. A year before Cochrane’s death, it was the scene of riots that were triggered by an assault against a Swedish woman, Majbritt Morrison, who was seen arguing with her black husband Raymond the day before. The White Defence League, a far-right group, had their headquarters in the area. Its leader Colin Jordan was an avowed neo-Nazi. Oswald Mosley contested Kensington North in the 1959 General Election, where he ran on an anti-immigration ticket. He lost his election deposit.

The British government responded to increasing racial tensions and popular fears surrounding Commonwealth immigration by introducing a bill in 1961 to limit the numbers allowed into Britain. Since 1948, any citizen of a Commonwealth country enjoyed the right to enter Britain. It was an open door policy! The new bill would restrict entry to dependants of immigrants residing in Britain and those granted work vouchers.

In 1960 and 1961, the number of migrants arriving from Asia and the Caribbean outnumbered those for the previous five years combined.

The bill became the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act. Unskilled migration from the West Indies and Asia was reduced to a trickle. But there was an unintended consequence. As Clair Wills, author of Lovers & Strangers, a history of post-war British migration writes, the fear engendered by the new restrictions provoked ‘an almost absurdly counter-productive rush to ‘beat the ban’ among Caribbean and Asian migrants alike.’

In 1960 and 1961, the number of migrants arriving from Asia and the Caribbean outnumbered those for the previous five years combined. The number of ‘New Commonwealth’ migrants who arrived in 1961 was 125,400, almost six times the number in 1959. This was not what the government’s intention. Worried that they might not be allowed back into Britain were they to return to their homeland, they settled permanently. Many were also so (mistakenly) worried that their families would not be allowed into Britain under the new legislation that they brought their wives and children over to come and live with them.

Wills’ book points out the paradox of immigration restrictions. Governments all over the world put restrictions in place in the belief that immigration would come right down and fewer migrants would permanently settle. In the medium to long term, that can be true. But in certain cases, the opposite has occurred, as with The Commonwealth Immigrants Act.

As Wills notes, ‘In the years before 1962, Asian migrants in particular tended to return home after earning for 3 or 4 years, maybe returning to Britain when the money ran out at home. Under the new rules that strategy now seemed too risky – who knew if they would be allowed back into the country again?’ So the makeup of Asian migrants changed. Most Asian migrants to Britain in the 1950s were single men or men who arrived without their families who were just looking to earn some money they could send home. They had intended to return to their homeland and reunite with their families, but the 1962 act overturned that dynamic. The act incentivised families of migrants to come and live in Britain with them.

Migration restrictions frequently cause the problems they are designed to solve

In the immigration debate, there exists a binary understanding of immigration controls. If you create more of them the theory goes, few migrants will arrive and stay; if you have none of them, floods of people will arrive and stay. But the truth is more complex. It’s true to say that migration controls can cut migrant numbers. Successive acts throughout the 1960s and early 1970s instituted stricter controls on who could come to Britain. Though the 1960s witnessed a rise of 800,000 in the foreign-born population, the 1970s saw a rise of only 100,000.

However, migration restrictions frequently cause the problems they are designed to solve. The Trump Administration’s ‘zero-tolerance’ policy on illegal immigration from Mexico is just the latest in a line of increasingly tougher migration policies directed at America’s southern neighbour. It led to the separation of children from their parents and was only halted after a major public outcry. While separating families is new, prior administrations have also been fantastically misguided in their attempts to combat illegal Mexican migration.

The consequences of stronger borders are shown in the findings of the Mexican Migration Project. It is an annual survey of Mexican households and their migration habits. The project has uncovered a major change in migration trends since the 1970s. Back then, migration between Mexico and the USA was circular. People would come for seasonal work and then go home. The cost of crossing the border was virtually nil. In fact, until the 1960s, the border was merely a line on a map. Even after the first major immigration restrictions from the Western Hemisphere came in 1965, illegal migration did increase, but its flow was predominantly circular. People came to work for a bit, then left.

But with Ronald Reagan, things changed. He introduced the Immigration Reform and Control Act 1986, which granted an amnesty for three million illegal migrants, but also militarised the southern border. Since then, Operations Blockade and Gatekeeper further militarised the border, the Border Patrol’s budget and officer numbers have risen inexorably and the Mexican economy has boomed. Surely the number of illegal migrants went down?

Except it didn’t! Between 1986 and 2010, undocumented migration rose from two million to twelve million. This happened despite the Border Control’s budget increasing sixteen-fold and their officer numbers increasing ten-fold. It has also led to migrants using coyotes (people traffickers) and some migrants dying. The likelihood of an undocumented Mexican migrant returning to Mexico within twelve months of their first trip has fallen to zero. In 1980, it was 50%.

As Douglas Massey and Jorge Durand, founders of the Mexican Migration Project succinctly argue: “The attempt to make the border impervious with respect to the movement of Mexican labour while opening it with respect to movements of goods, capital, information, commodities, and services has proved worse than a failure; it has achieved counterproductive outcomes in virtually every instance.” Border controls have meant that Mexican migrants have turned from temporary migrants to settled migrants.

If Britain should have less immigration from the EU, it should be easier for EU migrants to come and live here

As Britain is negotiating to leave the EU, the new Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab better learn about the concept of circular flow. The right wing of his party might decry the idea as pseudo-intellectual, anti-sovereign and a soft Brexit by the backdoor. After all, immigration controls on EU migrants are what the right of the Conservative Party desire.

He should still try though. If he gets a Brexit deal that leaves Britain with tougher controls on EU migration, Britain might just end up with more migrants than the government wants. It’s highly likely that more EU migrants will apply for citizenship and bring along their families to live with them.

So, if he wants to please the populists who demand savage immigration cuts, Raab should remind them of what happened when border controls were introduced in 1962, and argue the counter-intuitive line; that if Britain should have less immigration from the EU, it should be easier for EU migrants to come and live here.