Donald Trump’s executive order regarding travel to the US from Muslim majority countries has received widespread international condemnation. JFK airport was almost brought to a standstill as New Yorkers massed in support of those trapped at the border. Hundreds of legal representatives flooded the airport to assist refugees.
Having recently returned from her visit to the USA, Theresa May has failed to take any decisive leadership on the issue and has not condemned Trump. Her office produced a tepid statement saying that such an order was not their policy while other international leaders did not mince their words. May’s own MPs, including Boris Johnson and Nadhim Zahawi — who himself would be subject to Trump’s ban — have condemned this order.
Several people have noted the glaring contradiction between MPs like
Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and so on rushing to condemn Trump in the strongest possible terms while having spent years endorsing stronger border controls and saying that Labour should spend more time addressing the “legitimate concerns” of Labour voters around immigration. A particularly egregious example was today on Sophy Ridge’s show on Sky, where Dan Jarvis did the typical line on these issues, seemingly jarringly out of place in the public mood.
The Conservatives, particularly in the Brexit wing, are much the same. Nadhim Zahawi himself, indulged in the same rhetorical tropes as Trump: that it is necessary to prevent crime to secure the borders.
It is worth noting that May’s weak condemnation of Trump is of a piece with her own views on immigration, which may explain her slowness to condemn Trump. May is alleged to have suppressed positive information on immigration in a report during the referendum campaign. As Home Secretary, May endorsed the notorious “go home” vans and presided over what campaigners called “state-sanctioned abuse of women” at Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre and this is the tip of the iceberg with regard to her attitude to those seeking asylum. Her attitude to those seeking student visas is well documented both as home secretary and prime minister.
These people have talked up hardening borders for years. They are now condemning Trump when he actually does it and does it in a decisive, albeit appalling manner. Trump’s executive order is only the extreme case of the general tenor of UK public discourse on immigration. The same is the case for the vast majority of the UK media, now playing shocked and appalled when previously they had stressed the centrality of the issue.
While he has made strong statements against Trump, Jeremy Corbyn, who left his first victory speech to go immediately to a rally for refugees, has seemingly allowed himself to influenced by this overall atmosphere. For example, against his own views a line goes out that he is no longer “wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle”, even when he is personally incapable of delivering this point without significant qualification when the speech is delivered. Clive Lewis, the presumed leader in waiting, has been even more problematic on this point. The less said about Len McLuskey’s diversions into this issue, the better. As Rachel Shabi has argued this is a total dead end for Labour for political strategic as well as ethical political reasons, one that demobilised and demoralises Corbyn’s base.
I think it is useful to point out this glaring contradiction, but it is more useful to use this as a moment in which this dominant frame can be broken or at least, loosened. The move is not “how can you be concerned about refugees one day, then return to business as usual migrant bashing the next?”, though this has its uses. It is rather to get inside why people are capable of being appalled by this case and then to push outwards. People feel sympathy for the plight of these people trapped in airports, or unable to see loved ones. The border is seen as a negative thing, highly rare in public debates. The point is extend the reach of their sympathy to the general immigration debate. All migrants are people who, like the people trapped in the Trump case, are rounded human beings much like yourself, attempting to seek a better life for themselves, driven by forces that do violence to the possibilities of their happiness and flourishing. There will be attempts to divide between “good” refugees and “bad” economic migrants, which must be resisted. Once you have begun to think the border is wrong in this case, this view can be overturned or at least softened by centring the migrant in articulating a new overall “story” about borders and migration. This will be tough going, as anyone who has can these conversation in real life before will attest. There will be some who do not sit in this moment of moral contradiction and instead think Trump’s measure legitimate. But it is wholly worthwhile to make some ground.
Chances to change the public imaginary on migration from that of nameless (racialised) hordes crossing borders to do damage to “our” country to something other come very few and far between. Moments when the national press are in a mode that can be opened up on this issue are rare. The last moment was arguably the publication of the horrible photo of Aylan Kurdi. Psychologists Steve Reicher and Alex Haslam analysed public reaction to this image in a very interesting (but in my mind not entirely correct) blog post. The image troubled the categories of the migrant that had hitherto been common and allowed them to be seen differently. It allowed at least some space to open up around the issue.
There must be not return to “concerns on immigration” as usual after the condemnation of Trump’s border policies. There is an opportunity to change the weather on this issue while providing the necessary solidarity to those effected by it. It must be grasped with both hands.
Please do note this text is licensed under Creative Common Attribution, non-commercial, no derivatives. If you are a commercial site, including those that fund through advertising, I do not give my permission for this to be reproduced. Instead just get in touch.