On the insidious narrative of the “good immigrant”. Are there any immigrants of lesser value to the British society?

The UK is lucky to count many exceptional immigrants, such as star athletes, scientists, and artists, among its numbers. Take Mo Farah (pictured above), who moved as a child to Britain, and has since won many medals for Britain.

The narrative that immigrants are exceptional — what I term the exceptional immigrant narrative — is common, not just among those who seek to limit immigration (who only purport to want the “brightest and best”), but also among those who are supportive of migrant rights. By showcasing the accomplishments of immigrants, they hope to show that immigration is beneficial not just for the immigrant but also for her host country.


Photograph of EU citizens working in the NHS, July 2016. (Twitter/@ChalkandCarrots)

However, the exceptional immigrant narrative is insidious. The problem with the narrative is that it places the bar to be a “good immigrant” very high. It’s not enough if they provide net tax contributions, they need to be truly exceptional.

One positive of Brexit is that I got to know so many EU citizens who live and work in the UK. Many of them are the kind of immigrant the UK purports to still want, for instance, an Italian academic who has brought in millions in European research funds, a Polish baker who started his own business and employs many people, a Dutch NHS eye surgeon who has had offers from hospitals across Europe and the US but who chose to make the UK her home.

But I’ve also met people who do not fit into this narrative. A German stay-at-home mum taking care of her disabled, British son. A French woman who lives in council housing and is in work. A Belgian self-funding his postgraduate studies.

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The exceptional immigrant narrative creates a great deal of anxiety among this latter category. These are people who came here in good faith, wondering whether their rights are secured (this is still unclear, due to earlier requirements for comprehensive sickness insurance for those who are “self-sufficient” and not in work).

The message it is sending is that immigrants are just barely tolerable if they contribute, if they are a cash cow to be milked for their net tax contributions, but preferably they go above and beyond what is expected of British-born people. And even if you do fit the exceptional category, it seems it will never be enough (see below, a comment on an article about the exodus of EU nurses and doctors, people who are purportedly still welcome here).

Response on an article about EU nurses and doctors leaving the UK.

What will happen once EU immigrants grow old and frail, and are no longer to be used for the cash and the labour they provide? We can see what happens to dozens of other unexceptional immigrants from Jamaica, Singapore, and other commonwealth countries. It will happen to EU citizens too — is guaranteed to happen, because people will fall between the gaps.

I am an immigrant in the UK, but I am also the daughter of an immigrant — the utterly unfashionable kind, namely someone who came from a third world country to seek out better economic opportunities when Europe was closing its borders to immigrants of colour (in the 1970s). He was not a refugee fleeing war and devastation; he just hoped for a better life. Thanks to fortunate circumstances, my father got to stay in Belgium, became a citizen, and worked for decades as a bricklayer. My father was not glamorous or exceptional. He worked a low-wage, unspecialized job, but he did it well and was praised by his colleagues. He was able to raise a family and send his both daughters to university (both got PhDs). He gave us a sound work ethic, making sure we never take anything for granted, be thankful for the good things that happen. As far as I’m concerned, even though my father was not an exceptional immigrant, Belgium is richer and better for having him, and people like him.

The same is true for the UK. The UK is a better place for having EU and non-EU immigrants in it, and our contributions are not to be reduced to monetary value or to needed skills or exceptional feats. When the UK is hinting that only high-paid workers can settle here permanently post-Brexit, and the rest on short-term visas, a policy like this will diminish the country, not in the least because it treats people purely as commodities to be used to the advantage of the host.🔷

Update: This book was brought to my attention, and explores the exceptional immigrant narrative in detail, focusing on Black and Ethnic Minority British.

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(This piece was first published on The Blog!)

(Cover: Flickr/U.S. Army/Tim Hipps - Mo Farah at the Rio Olympic Games. 5,000-meter run medal ceremony, 20 August 2016.)