The statue of Liberty in New York Harbour has an inscription at its base which reads “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.
As a country built by immigrants, with a vast amount of territory at its disposal and a population density only an eighth of the UK’s, that sentiment has traditionally been echoed in more relaxed public attitudes towards immigration in America than pertain here.
But such is the scale of global migratory flows these days that even in the US the political debate around the issue has become highly charged and the open-ended promise to the huddled masses no longer stands.
When Donald Trump took office in 2017, he was partly riding a wave of anxiety about the scale and nature of immigration, particularly across the southern border with Mexico. A series of tough immigration and asylum policies followed, including about half the reinforcements to the border wall that Trump spent his election campaign promising to get built.
When the left-wing administration of Joe Biden took office in January this year, the mood music changed with some of the most draconian measures being scrapped, including a “Remain In Mexico” programme that forced asylum applicants to wait outside the US while their claims were processed.
So it has come as a surprise to many to learn that the Biden government is reimposing the policy immediately. Officially, this is because a federal court order found the policy had been improperly terminated. Biden has lodged an appeal to try and get this overturned but with the Supreme Court carrying a conservative majority his chances of success may be slim and some observers think he is just going through the motions.
The furore over the issue has also drawn attention to the fact that Biden has not even tried to scrap another Trump era measure – the so-called Title 42 emergency policy that allows the US instantly to expel a majority of irregular migrants without even allowing them to claim asylum at all.
The potential spill-over of all this into the immigration politics of Britain is obvious: If even a Democrat US administration is prepared summarily to remove illegal arrivals, forbid them from claiming asylum and restart a policy of forcing those it does permit to lodge claims to wait in Mexico then shouldn’t our own authorities be doing something similar?
Doesn’t all this in fact amount to the “offshore processing” that our own Government is said to be considering as a way of stemming the illegal flotillas crossing the English Channel? Of course, the US is not constrained by the European Convention on Human Rights. But as the “land of the free” it is a highly relevant example of how a wealthy sovereign state should approach largescale attempts to evade its migration laws.
Processing claimants out-of-territory has the distinct advantage of preventing them absconding and living in your society illegally. It can also prevent applicants from acquiring rights to remain via forming relationships, having children, or working with legal teams to come up with new ideas as to why deportation back to their country of origin would be an unconscionable step. Removing illegal arrivals to wait it out offshore would also send a highly visible signal to others that crossing the Channel in a dinghy is no longer a viable way of securing residence in the UK.
On Saturday 100 migrants were escorted into the UK after being picked up in the Channel. No interceptions were made by the French authorities. For such a number to make it across on a single day in the winter should tell ministers that under present policies next spring and summer will bring a scale of arrivals much greater than anything yet seen.
The British public and particularly those who voted Tory in 2019 would surely be horrified at such a turn of events and liable to believe their government was not even trying to implement its promise to “take back control” of our borders.
With the Nationality & Borders Bill – which contains clauses that would enable offshore processing but no commitment to it – due back in the Commons imminently, it may suit Boris Johnson to have a political bust-up with opposition parties about such a prospect.
But while a bust-up may make good theatre and shore-up Tory support in the very short-term, only effective action will allow the Government to protect its reputation on an enduring basis.
The UK does not share a land border with a pliant or client state, as the US does with Mexico, but it does have an array of overseas territories and dependencies available. Before the 2005 election, the Tories scoped out the possibility of offshore asylum processing and identified Ascension Island as the best bet. That exercise even led to a manifesto commitment that “asylum seekers’ applications will be processed outside Britain”.
It is high time that Mr Johnson implemented that Michael Howard-era policy. Not only are other governments across Europe, such as Denmark’s, starting to understand that the current approach to asylum is unsustainable, but even the New World countries of Australia and America with their vast open spaces have imposed measures far more rigorous than anything being implemented on our own overcrowded island. That has simply got to change.