How Immigrants Became Scapegoats in the United Kingdom

London March Against Racism 2017 (Tim Dennell/Flickr)

In Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats, Maya Goodfellow sets out to explain how decades of restrictive British policies and demonizing rhetoric created a system of anti-immigration politics that proved ruinous to non-white immigrants and British citizens. While much as been written regarding immigration in the United Kingdom, the author gives a refreshing point of view by incorporating an extensive variety of primary sources including newspapers, real-time internet blogs like Twitter, government correspondence and speeches, and personal interviews with migrants and citizens, all of which were supplemented by rich secondary sources to support her argument.

Goodfellow, a writer, researcher, academic, and a trustee of the Runnymede Trust, addresses the issues of anti-immigration politics, not immigrants themselves, as the most serious issue the UK government faces today. Goodfellow takes a look back over the past fifty years to analyze the politics of the political spectrum to understand how this anti-immigrant stance became the policy “norm” and how those who challenged anti-immigrant rhetoric offered an alternative to these policies.

Relying on interviews with immigrants who sought asylum in the UK to escape the violence and poverty in their home countries, Goodfellow begins by discussing the current state of the immigration system in the UK. “The Cost of It All” serves as a grim introductory chapter as it describes the horrible process immigrants endure in order to find a better life. Some stories highlight similarities on what is wrong with the current system: extraordinary immigration fees, shady lawyers who provide false hope, and racist policies that hinder a successful integration into society as a legal migrant or citizen. Others are more tragic that end in deportation, long-term homelessness and stays in detention centers, and even death. It may seem confusing at first to start with where we are now followed by how we got here, but organizing the chapters this way, makes the book much more impactful. Goodfellow closes the chapter by asking “What has this country become?” and plainly answering, “The problem is, this is the kind of place it has long been” (46). This transitions into a chronological timeline of racism and anti-immigration in the UK.

Goodfellow opens a deep, painful conversation with an extensive chapter titled “Keeping the Country White” that transcends the borders of the UK and race. If scholars of Black studies are to take one thing away from this chapter, or this book, it is that race is more than just skin color or physical features. After W.E.B. Du Bois visited the Warsaw ghetto in Poland, he concluded “the race problem in which I was interested cut across lines of color and physique and belief and status and was a matter of cultural patterns, perverted teaching and human hate and prejudice, which reached all sorts of people and cause endless evil to all men” (52). The author does address anti-Blackness in the UK with concrete evidence in this chapter, but considering what Du Bois said, she also addresses racism based on religion and your country of origin. Before Winston Churchill hammered down on banning immigrants from the Caribbean in 1955, the first real legislation to deal with immigration was in 1905 to limit Jewish people escaping poverty in Eastern Europe. As the Empire collapsed after World War II, in a desperate attempt to stay in control of their colonies, the Commonwealth countries were created and a supposed “open door policy” for citizens of these countries to pass freely throughout the Commonwealth and the borders of the UK. When the people from the former colonies attempted to utilize this policy, they were met with backlash from the government who felt that the influx of colored people agitated the supposed harmony of current public life. The problem wasn’t how many people were immigrating into the UK, it was who and where they were from.

Bringing us back to today, Goodfellow addresses the failures of the pre-Brexit government. The government made an economic case for immigration but failed to address the rise in racism and inequality and its complicity in creating and enforcing them. Goodfellow describes anti-immigration rhetoric as painfully incomplete when they bring up economic concerns, the depletion of community spaces, and worries over strains on the country’s infrastructure  She writes that economic anxieties are not legitimate concerns for being anti-migrant as there is much more to it. Goodfellow argues that people who challenge anti-immigration rhetoric are silenced and the flat, one-dimensional stereotypes run amok in the media and government policies. Her conclusion is that migrants are not the problem, it is the exploitative economy that is the problem. People matter regardless of whether they are “highly skilled” or not, and people matter regardless of where they are born.

Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats is a humanistic look at race and immigration in the United Kingdom. It delivers hard-hitting truths that move beyond the borders of the UK and Europe to open a global discussion on the relationship between immigration and race. Failing to understand the past opens the door for a new generation of politicians and media outlets to continue to promote racism and anti-immigration policies. What is happening here in America, and what has happened in the UK, is not a rarity, as our newspapers, news media outlets, and social media can attest. As scholars and historians of Black history in America, we should take a good look at what has been and what has not been written about immigration in the United States and perhaps address it in the same manner as Goodfellow has done.

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Gabrielle Mauriello

Gabrielle Mauriello is currently an advanced graduate student in the Department of History and Anthropology at Monmouth University located in West Long Branch, New Jersey. Her field of study is modern European history. Her research interests include the study of women in history, cultural history, and people of color in Europe's history.