Voters rank immigration as the second most important issue, right behind the economy. The Conservatives and Labour are trying to outdo each other in appearing tough on immigration, although the Liberal Democrats also promise support giving the National Border Force powers of arrest . Reuters has a good summary of the positions of the major parties.

Conservatives have promised to cap immigration of non-EU economic migrants and “reduce net immigration to the levels of the 1990s” . Labour has made immigration one of their five election pledges. In their manifesto, they discuss crime and immigration in the same section. The party promises “Strong borders and immigration controls” right after section on “Terrorism and organised crime”.

As an immigrant, this is not an abstract issue for me or for my British wife. People tell me that as a white immigrant from the United States that the discussion isn’t about me, but the regulations affect us. We had to surrender both of our passports and pay £395 to get a certificate of approval from the Home Office so that we could marry. The fee was suspended in April 2009 “to comply with the House of Lords judgment in the case of Baiai v the Secretary of State for the Home Department“. My wife and I could get a refund if we were able to prove that the fee caused financial hardship.

I’ve been in the UK since 2005, arriving on a class of visa that no longer exists, an intra-company transfer. I had worked for the BBC for more than six years in the US, and I came to London on a temporary assignment. I now have a spousal visa and a biometric visa. Under the current regulations, I’ll be able to apply indefinite leave to remain in the autumn of 2011. However, Labour could change that, promising in their manifesto:

Because we believe coming to Britain is a privilege and not a right, we will break the automatic link between staying here for a set period and being able to settle or gain citizenship. In future, staying will be dependent on the points-based system…

Although I’m married to a British citizen and will have lived in the UK legally for more than six years in the autumn in 2011, I might now come under a new points-based system to gain indefinite leave to remain and citizenship. Labour also promises to limit access to benefits and social housing increasingly for British citizens. However on my visa, it states that I have no access to public funds.

How much are immigrants straining public services in the UK such as social housing? A study from LSE about immigration, they found that:

Immigrants, on average, are less likely to be in social housing than people born in the UK, even when the immigrant is from a developing country. Only immigrants who became UK citizens are neither more nor less likely to be in social housing than UK-born individuals.

They also found immigrants are, on average, more educated than their UK-born counterparts.

While more than half of the UK-born workforce left school at 16 or earlier, fewer than one in six new immigrants finished their education by the age of 16. Just under one in five UK-born members of the workforce finished education at 21 or later compared with more than one in three immigrants and more than 50% of all new immigrants.

The LSE report also notes that the, “The UK has a lower share of immigrants in its total population – (10.2%) than Australia (25%), Germany (12.9%) or the United States (13.6%)”. The debate on immigration is emotive.

As Denis MacShane points out in The Guardian, one of the greatest myths is that there is an easy answer.

There needs to be no silence on immigration – simply a conversation about the issue that recognises there are problems and works out ways of overcoming them. That requires sensitivity and balance

Yes, a sensible debate, but how? There are a lot of myths and a lot of lazy thinking (and reporting) to be challenged. Simply fighting fear with facts rarely works. However, silence is definitely not the answer.