12 January 2023

Why Sunak shouldn’t follow Joe Biden’s example on immigration


Most developed western countries, except steadfast Australia, have been confronted with the problem of surging irregular immigration over the last year. And while it’s easy to get caught up in our own problems, we should spare a thought for our American cousins.   

In the year to September 2021, 1.7 million migrants were detained for trying to cross the US-Mexico border illegally; in 2021/22, this rose to 2.4 million – enough to add 0.7% to the population of the USA. And that’s just the migrants who were caught, not the hundreds of thousands who successfully navigated the 1,950-mile land border without being picked up by the authorities.

In per capita terms, this is an order of magnitude graver than the serious, costly and democratically corrosive problem we face. The 45,756 migrants who arrived via small boats in 2022 equate to about 0.07% of the UK’s population. Imagine instead if 450,000 migrants had crossed the Channel. That’s what America is dealing with right now.

This migrant surge is the entirely predictable result of Joe Biden scrapping Donald Trump’s tough border policies – the same thing happened in Australia from 2008, when the Rudd government dismantled the Howard government’s rigorous ‘Pacific Solution’. Tellingly, by 2012, with over 1,000 migrants having drowned in the Pacific, his party reverted to the approach of the previous government – though not in time to prevent a crushing defeat in the 2013 general election. 

It seems that Biden has at last woken up to the fatal electoral consequences of his administration’s wilfully negligent approach to border control. A few days ago, the White House announced a raft of new enforcement measures touted as a way to increase border security and reduce unlawful entries. 

At first glance, the policy U-turn looks sensible, and not too dissimilar to the policies being pursued under Rishi Sunak: declaring migrants entering Britain from a safe country ‘inadmissible’ for asylum; offshoring asylum seekers to Rwanda; barring illegal entrants from ever being allowed to settle here; and improving enforcement and processing.   

Thus migrants who arrive in the US illegally and without claiming asylum in safe countries of transit will be subject to a presumption of asylum ineligibility. These individuals will then face expedited removal to Mexico, which has agreed to take 30,000 ineligible individuals a month. They will also be banned from reentering the US for five years. Alongside legal remedies, there will be a surge of resources to enforcement at the southern border, and more efforts to disrupt people smuggling.   

Overall, this would seem to be an implicit embrace of the deterrence principle, which as Nick Timothy and I explain in ‘Stopping the Crossings’, is the bedrock of any effective immigration and asylum system. It is tempting to point to Biden’s actions while making arguments for deterrence here, not least because with Biden tacking towards the centre on illegal immigration, the wailing and gnashing of teeth among the American left has already begun.

Yet the cannier pro-immigration campaigners will be quietly celebrating. At the end of the day, it is prudence, not conviction, which is forcing Biden’s hand. And in order to sweeten the pill for the left of his electoral coalition, the plan entails expanding a ‘parole process’ to take up to 30,000 Venezuelan, Nicaraguan, Haitian and Cuban nationals (who will receive two-year work visas) from across the region, and tripling refugee resettlements from the western hemisphere to 20,000 a year. 

So the equivalent to Biden’s approach in UK context would actually be something like a returns agreement with France – 3,000 a month, say – while opening up legal routes for asylum seekers in European countries at a similar scale, and also taking more individuals via UN schemes, for a net increase in immigration.  

So on this front at least, we can be sure that it is only a matter of time until pro-immigration campaigners urge the Government to follow in Biden’s footsteps, using his example as another crowbar to open up ‘safe and legal routes’ from Europe and its periphery. But there are three strong arguments against such a policy. 

First, we would just encourage the abusive practice of ‘asylum shopping’ by taking ‘asylum seekers’ from safe countries, undermining the very principle of inadmissibility that is so central to our new deterrence posture. 

Second, this would just increase the pull factor to Europe, encouraging more migrants to journey to EU countries in the hope of an asylum bridge to the UK. It will intensify the overall problem, not alleviate it.  

Third, safe and legal routes would have to be capped, unless we were prepared to take literally millions of people a year. And those rejected from the safe and legal routes for want of space would just take to the small boats anyway. Thus safe and legal routes will not destroy the demand that underpins the business model of the people smugglers – in fact, by undermining deterrence and reinforcing the pull factors to Europe, such a policy would probably result in an increase in crossings.  

So sensible people who want to regain control of Britain’s borders need to be wary of the US approach. There might also be a temptation to see the Biden U-turn as a window of opportunity for reforming antiquated international frameworks, such as the 1951 Refugee Convention. It’s all very well having Australia, Denmark and Switzerland on side with ‘Global Britain’, but with the economic hegemon potentially open to reform too, and under a Democrat administration no less, something might actually happen. Or so we might be tempted to think. 

But while vast swathes of American voters are angry about the chaos at the US-Mexico border, this is more to do with lawlessness and loss of control than numbers per se. Net legal migration to America tops one million people in normal years, and a majority of Americans are pro-immigration – as long as people arrive fairly, by prescribed routes. Fairness is a big concern for Brits too. But in addition, 59% of British voters think overall immigration has been too high over the last decade; only 9% think it has been too low.  

The expanded legal pathways that Biden has yoked to tougher measures at the border reflect the more relaxed American attitude to immigration. If this were to carry over to international forums, then we could end up falling into a trap by aligning ourselves with the US. it’s all too easy to imagine pro-immigration activists driving a British government into an international agreement which ultimately adds to overall immigration via new ‘safe and legal’ routes.      

Caution is needed. We do need to work with our friends and allies on the global problem of irregular migration, but like Australia’s ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, British immigration policy ultimately needs to be just that – sovereign, independent, decided here, by Parliament, in accordance with the wishes of the British people, in the national interest. Too much in British politics already happens downstream of American politics; let’s not do the same with our immigration and asylum policy.

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Karl Williams is Senior Researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.