Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: We immigrants should withdraw our labour for a day

I feel ashamed of being an immigrant. We take the abuse when we should be rising, as they are in the US
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The Independent Online

Last Friday, a poll for BBC's Daily Politics programme found that 52 per cent of respondents believe immigration is a more important issue than health and education. Entirely to be expected after the recent bout of anti-immigrant fever and delirium. Logic and facts are driven out by paranoid ravings and the contagion spreads.

Charles Clarke had to resign when "foreign" criminals, after serving their sentences, were inadvertently released instead of being deported. Any man with swarthy skin is now suspect - he could be raping our children, making bombs, spreading Aids and pillaging the land.

Last week Dave Roberts of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate told a committee of MPs he had no idea how many illegal immigrants there are in Britain. Outrage burst through the sound barrier. What, no exact numbers for unknown and uncountable entrants?

It reminds me of a story my mother used to tell me when I was a child, about a rogue king who imprisoned all rat-catchers because they couldn't tell him exactly how many invisible rats there were in his kingdom.

Then another "scandal" was released into the malodorous atmosphere when itinerant workers, allegedly without the right papers, were found cleaning the wretched Home Office.Heinous lawbreakers, how dare they sweep floors and scrub lavatories for the minimum wage? Soon another revelation emerged: a senior male immigration officer allegedly asking to have sex with an asylum seeker in return for help with her application.

Prospect editor David Goodhart has joined in the fray suggesting that British citizens only should be entitled to the full benefits of the welfare state while guest workers get a bare minimum of state assistance. An interesting idea. Congolese Children, this way please, march to that tree for your lessons. Zimbabwean mothers in labour, there are fields you can use, just like back home.

Germany used this caste system when it needed Turkish workers to recover after the war. It was spiteful and self defeating. Perhaps migrants should wear yellow stars too or other visible badges, a policy now enforced in Iran for non-Muslims.

The perfidious side of Albion - a light sleeper - vents its fearful malevolence on incomer-outsiders, and once more the reverberations unsettle millions of us who thought we were finally accepted, or at least politely tolerated, by this nation, itself a mongrel beast.

The resistance to migrants goes back 400 years. With one or two exceptions, migrants are maligned even when the economy is booming. Asylum seekers and refugees, too, face this cyclical collective punishment.

Last week at a meeting of Women for Refugee Women - attended by Oona King, Jenni Murray, female stars of The Bill, Juliet Stephenson - we heard stories to make the heart burst. Victims of multiple rapes, child marriages and torture are stuck in dreadful British detention centres, then put on planes back to hell. The government simply wants to deport these pitiful and damned folk, to get the targets right.

I go through a familiar round of emotions every time the national mood darkens. Depression overcomes hope, weariness follows, then rage or apprehension - and regrets: why didn't we move to Canada when we could have? But this time I also feel ashamed of being an immigrant. We take the abuse, when we should be rising as they are in America in response to a sinister, powerful lobby against non-Anglo-Saxon immigration.

From coast to coast since Mayday, there have been boycotts and marches against this hostility and possible new restrictive laws. Sons walk with fathers; mothers with their babies, all races are coming together. The organised absenteeism is already affecting trade, but Sanjay Patel, owner of coffee shops in Jackson Heights in New York, supports the actions. He would be lost without a supply of willing and uncostly immigrant labour.

The protesters want an amnesty for undocumented workers; they want the US once more to hail immigration as part of its national story; most of all they want respect says Maria Elena Durazo, a labour leader in Los Angeles: "They work hard, and how dare there be politicians to say, 'No, you're lawbreakers. You're felons'?"

That is a question asked last week by Jack Dromey of the TGWU and Treasurer of the Labour Party, a good man in bad times. Why were the Home Office cleaners being criminalised when they were meeting a need? An amnesty is what they deserved - and some gratitude for their silent contribution to the engine of our thriving economy. Have you noticed, no businesses join in the demonisation of migrant labour?

We need to say enough is enough. Immigrants, refugees and their descendants are in this together. We should launch an Immigrants Proud campaign, organise nationwide marches and boycotts, monitor speeches by politicians and rain down objections on those who play this card, expose bigoted bureaucrats and officials, engage in robust debates with academics, boycott media outlets guilty of serial hostility against migrants and so on.

To accept animus in perpetuity as a condition of acquired citizenship is an intolerable deal and we should now be bold enough to reject it.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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