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UK's message to immigrants: Stay out

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
October 24, 2013 -- Updated 1540 GMT (2340 HKT)
British Prime Minister David Cameron announces in March a new clampdown on immigration with plans to restrict benefits.
British Prime Minister David Cameron announces in March a new clampdown on immigration with plans to restrict benefits.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • British government had trucks carrying billboards exhorting illegal immigrants to go home
  • Ruben Navarrette: Public outcry led the government to stop the offensive campaign
  • But it still wants to drastically reduce the numbers of immigrants allowed in, he says
  • Navarrette: Nations that embrace immigration thrive; those that don't founder

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter @rubennavarrette.

San Diego (CNN) -- Just this summer, the British government was directly targeting illegal immigrants with a campaign that turned heads, and, in many cases, turned stomachs.

In an initiative designed to persuade illegal immigrants to pack up and voluntarily return to their home countries, officials deployed two trucks to drive around London for a week. Each vehicle carried a large billboard with the message: "In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest." Then it offered instructions to text the word "home" to a government-run number for "free advice and help with travel documents."

What was the free advice? Sounded like "Get the hell out!" Not exactly the Welcome Wagon, was it? The campaign stirred up so much public outcry that the government backtracked and decided to keep the trucks in the garage.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

But there's more, and it's still happening. According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, the Conservative Party of Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to reduce annual net migration to the United Kingdom. For the British, the problem is Eastern Europeans. The annual figure of newcomers is about 200,000. The conservatives want to bring it down to the tens of thousands.

This is just plain foolish. Just who does the British government think is going to swoop in and take over the jobs that are left behind if immigrants are run off? British citizens? Not blooming likely. By now, several generations of British citizens have grown up thinking of these kinds of jobs as beneath them and themselves as entitled to better. They're not going to miraculously change their way of thinking and find their way back to this kind of work just because the immigrants are gone.

European countries -- Great Britain, France, Germany, etc. -- don't have the best track record of dealing with racial and ethnic differences. Besides, it's not every day that a country puts up a "no vacancy" sign to keep out even those immigrants who come legally. Most countries like to at least maintain the pretense that they only have a problem with illegal entrants. If nothing else, this approach is refreshingly honest.

It seems that Americans haven't exactly cornered the market on bigotry and xenophobia.

Sure, we have our own peculiar issues with the foreign-born. It's not easy being a nation of immigrants that has, in reality, always despised immigrants. It's tough being a country that boasts about its diversity, and then does everything it can to boil it away in the fabled melting pot.

But we Americans are not alone in our narrow-mindedness. Just about every industrialized country on the globe vacillates between needing immigrants to do jobs that natives won't do and resenting the changes that immigrants bring with them.

Airport immigration troubles at Heathrow

Parts of the immigration debate playing out on the national and international stage are complicated. And yet this part is simple: Countries that encourage legal immigration, and make the process easier, will thrive. Those that pull up the drawbridge and put up barriers to keep out even immigrants who try to enter legally will founder.

Who says? Economists say so. Life experience says so. U.S. history says so. World history says so.

This is true of legal immigrants whether they come from China, Vietnam, India, Brazil or any other country.

Yet it is also the case with illegal immigrants, as former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan made clear in April 2009 when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security.

Greenspan said illegal immigration make a "significant" contribution to U.S. economic growth by providing a flexible workforce and that illegal immigrants act as a "safety valve" for the economy since demand for workers goes up and down.

"There is little doubt that unauthorized, that is, illegal, immigration has made a significant contribution to the growth of our economy," Greenspan said in calling for an overhaul of U.S. immigration laws.

We can assume Cameron's government didn't get the news.

After those trucks drove around six areas of London, humanitarian organizations, opposition parties and labor groups in the United Kingdom complained that the tactics were offensive and heavy-handed. They said they harked back to an ugly time in British history when nativist groups had much greater sway in the halls of government.

What a shame that this is what has become of a once-great nation and one of the world's great superpowers. Now the United Kingdom is in a defensive stance, trying to ward off invaders and hold on to what it has.

Contrast all this with what is happening in Israel. Consider the diversity of the tech corridor in Tel Aviv, where some of Silicon Valley's most successful companies come to poach workers and invest venture capital. Everywhere you go, you're reminded that Israel is one of the most diverse nations in the world and one with a proud immigrant tradition.

Israeli officials will tell you, without hesitation, that much of what has been accomplished in the country's lifespan of only 65 years can be attributed to the fact that this tiny country benefits from immigrants and draws the best and brightest from around the world.

Of course, no nation is perfect. The Israelis have their own problems with immigration. They struggle with the challenge of assimilation of refugees from Sudan and Ethiopia. But still, they understand the restorative power of immigration.

Meanwhile, at least the United Kingdom's government realized the error of its ways when it shelved the billboards. Government officials acknowledged that the message was too blunt and the results unconvincing.

Score one for decency and common sense. Don't you just love it when old Europe learns a new way of thinking?

Follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

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