This election demonises the weakest

Someone has to rescue us from the complete madness of the immigration red herring being the major issue in this election

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The Independent Online

If you are lucky enough to visit the magnificent Museum of Immigration at Ellis Island just off the southern tip of Manhattan you may see an unforgettable quotation.

It comes from a Neapolitan immigrant to the United States, who would have passed through the then Ellis Island immigration Centre as hundreds of thousands did, including my own family. The location is memorably recorded in the movie Godfather II, filmed in situ.

“I came to America because I thought the streets were paved with gold,” it begins. “When I got here I learned three things: 1. They weren’t paved with gold; 2. They weren’t even paved; and 3. I was expected to pave them.”

Spend any time at Ellis Island and you soon realize the appalling, degrading conditions in which waves of immigrants – from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Greece, Germany and so many other countries – lived and worked once they got off the ships and through quarantine.

And yet, to a man, they would all say that it was better than the life they left behind: a life of extreme hunger and poverty, often married to political oppression.

It’s a salutary lesson. The huge majority of history’s immigrants left their own countries because they felt that they had no choice but to do so. Many were escaping hunger, famine, pestilence, war or persecution, on the grounds of religion, race and politics.

It is a reality that we have almost entirely lost sight of as we trudge through this most depressing of election campaigns, one being fought via an appeal to our baser instincts: demonizing our poorest and most helpless: people on benefits, those with disabilities, immigrants, the unemployed.

If there is a body to which you might look to for leadership and a counter balance to the prevailing social narrative as espoused in particular by the dominant right-wing media in Britain, it is our religious leaders. This actually happened this weekend.

The Catholic leader, the Archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Nichols, insisted from both the pulpit and the Andrew Marr Show that our political parties “have to be tested” on their policies towards immigration.

Stating the obvious, that the “vast majority of immigrants work hard and make a very positive contribution”, the Cardinal reminded us that those desperate immigrants lost at sea or drowned on flimsy boats being exploited by people traffickers are real people, not just economic statistics.

Apparently, this is what passes for political interference and “left-wing policies” in the Britain of the 2015 election run-in. Yes, the Church is not meant to be party pris, but surely it is supposed to be the organisation that speaks up for the dispossessed, the poorest, those that our political system leaves behind?

Regular readers will know that I rarely have a good word to say about religion, let alone the Catholic faith with which I fell out. But in this instance, I felt some long lost sense of pride in Cardinal Nicholls.

Someone needs to say what he is saying. Sadly, our political leaders are too scared of the media to do so. Someone has to rescue us from the complete madness of the immigration red herring being the major issue in this election. This is indeed, as Cardinal Nicholls says, all about what kind of country we wish to live in.