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‘But who will clean the toilets?’ isn’t the woke take you want to have on immigration

By reducing immigrants to their economic value, Priti Patel and the Home Office are further demonising the most vulnerable people in a global society.


21 Feb 2020

Photography via Wikimedia Commons

Remember when a few years ago Kelly Osborne smugly asked “if you kick out the Latinos, who will clean the toilets Donald Trump?” and actually thought it was a good take? Using the “immigration is good for the economy” argument to fight the UK’s new points-based immigration system, unveiled by Priti Patel this week, has precisely the same energy. It delivers the message that immigrants are still seen as different. We’re seen as stats. We’re servants to society and not a part of it.

I’m a first-generation immigrant and moved to the UK from Uzbekistan in 2005. I couldn’t speak English. I’ll never forget the long days of sitting in front of a mirror and practising my South London accent just to fit in at school. The muted giggles as I mispronounced difficult words reading Pig Heart Boy in Year 7 English. I remember begging my mum to let me bleach my moustache with Jolene in fear of looking different to the other girls in my class. Being embarrassed to spell out my last name because it was too long. Anglicising the first until the age of 22. Refusing to call myself Muslim because my beautiful, multi-faceted “foreign” identity was shameful. The relentless debates on what it means to be a British immigrant triggers the childhood trauma around “assimilation”.

 The Home Office’s new plans have caused age-old debates around the value of immigrant communities to once again resurface. These xenophobia-fuelled discussions are particularly painful when our entire existence is boiled down to whether we’re of economic value or not. Where is the human argument for free movement?

“I’ll never forget the long days of sitting in front of a mirror and practising my South London accent”

Immigration is good for the economy. It’s a proven fact. A study found that migrants who arrived in 2016 would make a total net positive contribution of £26.9 billion to the UK’s public finances over the entirety of their stay. Furthermore, it found that the average UK-based migrant from Europe contributed approximately £2,300 more to UK public finances in 2016/17 than the average UK adult.

Our communities have historically enriched British culture. Think of the food you eat. Think of the musicians you listen to. Think of the impact on fashion. I haven’t even mentioned the writers, poets, actors, politicians, inventors and athletes. But using these arguments as the only ones to fight for immigrant rights is dehumanising and othering. We need to fight xenophobia because we’re all equal, not because some of us are a huge benefit to the UK’s GDP. Believe it or not – immigrant lives extend beyond that. And yes, some of us will require full-time care and some will earn low-wages for the rest of our lives. These things don’t make us any less human.

The idea that immigrants have to be spectacular in order to exist in this country only feeds the toxic “good immigrant” narrative. The good ones are the lawyers, surgeons and Olympic gold-medalists. The bad immigrants come to the country to exploit the system, scrounge benefits and steal jobs. They’re the terrorists. However, our worlds aren’t binary and in reality, this is never the case. Many of us ended up here because of non-English speaking parents or grandparents working those “low-skilled” jobs. Yet within generations, we were able to freely choose our own individual paths. Where will limiting this kind of freedom lead us?

“Even Priti Patel has admitted her own parents would have been turned away”

When you’re a child immigrant, you just want to fit in. Your whole life revolves dialling down the foreignness and out-British-ing the British. It took years to understand I was internalising the same kind of blatant xenophobic discussions taking place today and viewed myself as a commodity, a spare part. I’m worried others growing up will strip themselves of their own humanity in a similar way.

Many Britons are rightfully outraged and say they wouldn’t have been able to enter the country under the new laws. Laughably, even Priti Patel has admitted her own parents would have been turned away. The running joke is that Priti hates immigrants so much, she’s going to end up deporting herself. Humour aside, the government claims it wants the world’s best talent, but has the audacity to never stop and question if the world’s best talent wants the UK’s increasingly hostile environment. Immigrant lives cannot be boxed into categories, our experiences are worth more than 70 points on a checklist.