Editorial: Britain needs its immigrants

We ought to be grateful for how much our national heritage owes to incomers

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This newspaper starts from the premise that the free movement of people is a good thing. We therefore welcome the immigrants who have come here since 1998, when net immigration exceeded 100,000 for the first time, and since when it has remained above that annual level. Just as we welcomed – mostly in principle, because The Independent on Sunday was founded only in 1990 – immigration at lower levels before then.

All nations consist of peoples who once moved from somewhere else, but we citizens of the United Kingdom are particularly aware of this, not having a simple national name for ourselves. "British" is a fairly recent invention, and even "English" reminds us that the Angles came with the Saxons from Germany. We ought therefore to be more grateful for how much our national heritage owes to incomers, and in many ways we are, as this year's Olympic ceremony showed.

We hope, however, that this newspaper has also been honest about the problems caused by big changes in migration, and consistent in its support for fair regulation. We have commented for many years on the gap between the London, chattering, political class's view of immigration and that of people on lower incomes. Although, on the whole, immigration is both a symptom and a cause of prosperity, it also almost certainly holds back earnings for many British workers, puts a strain on public services and affects the quality of communal life.

Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, was right to apologise for the mistakes of the previous government, although he was notably unspecific about what they were. Let us clarify them for him. Squeamishness about race meant that Labour failed to police "family reunion" rigorously, or, later, bogus students. Naivety touched with idealism allowed free movement of workers from central Europe when the EU enlarged in 2004.

Now, however, the Conservative-led coalition seems to be overreacting and making equal and opposite mistakes. Unable to restrict EU immigration after the transitional block on Romania and Bulgaria is lifted in a year's time, it is restricting too tightly immigration from outside the EU. This is partly a diversionary tactic, hoping to distract a Eurosceptic Tory party from the "free movement of workers" in the Treaty of Rome, and partly a desperate attempt to get net immigration down below 100,000 a year (to "tens of thousands") by the election.

As we report today, the new rules will make it harder for scientists to make the breakthroughs at British universities on which our future prosperity rests. The Russian-born Professor Sir Andre Geim, now a dual British and Dutch national, tells The Independent on Sunday that he would probably not have discovered the wonder-material graphene in Britain if today's immigration rules had been in force.

No one can object to the closing down of bogus colleges offering "courses" to "students" who come here to work, but the tone of ministers' statements seems to be putting off genuine students, as Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, noted in his recent visit to India. And the rule requiring foreign academic researchers to earn more than £31,000 is what prompted Sir Andre to say: "I can't stress enough how stupid it is that the Government has put immigrants and overseas students in the same category."

The Government should come to its senses before lasting economic damage is done.

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