Leading article: Never mind the uniforms, welcome the immigrants

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The Independent Online

The proposal to introduce uniformed border guards at Britain's ports and airports will surprise no one. Nor will the news that these officials will not be anything additional, merely the old passport control officers - who currently work in plain clothes - clad in an eye-catching uniform. Rebranding existing policy is what we have come to expect from Tony Blair's government, not least from his favoured hit-and-run minister, John Reid, who has an eye for headline-grabbing initiatives which he puts in place before moving on to his next department.

It is unsurprising that Mr Reid felt he had to order something visible, if hardly dramatic, on immigration. In the past couple of days we have had the leak of a Home Office memo fearing that 45,000 "undesirables" could enter the country after Romania and Bulgaria join the EU in January. We have already had an increase of immigrants from eastern Europe since the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia joined in 2004. The memo spoke of "enlargement fatigue" and worried that the "enough is enough" argument is now winning.

On top of that, there was the revelation in yesterday's report by the Home Affairs Select Committee that, in the past five years, 31 employees have been referred for prosecution and 79 for disciplinary action over allegations of corruption in the beleaguered Immigration and Nationality Directorate. And, also yesterday, we learnt that the cross-bench peer Lady Mar has resigned after 20 years on the Immigration Appeals Tribunal, describing our immigration system as a "farce" which incompetently fails to expel rejected asylum-seekers and yet deports many who should be allowed to stay.

A uniformed border-control force is not what the MPs' report called for. Their principal complaint was the inability of the immigration system to identify and track individuals who are in breach of immigration rules. Their solution is for the employers of illegal immigrants to be targeted, for clearer lines of management within the system, and for Home Office removal teams to target newly arrived migrants rather than those who are well settled in the UK with families.

All of which makes more sense than the gesture politics of dishing out uniforms. In any case, Dr Reid claimed on morning television that the number of people seeking asylum in the UK has been reduced by 72 per cent, and that we are now deporting more failed asylum-seekers than are arriving. If that is the case, then why do we need uniformed guards at our airports?

There is, in any case, a more fundamental point. All this fuss is predicated on the notion that immigration from Eastern Europe is a bad thing. We see no evidence of this. On the contrary, immigration has had a beneficial impact on our labour markets and on society. The number of people joining the British workforce from the newest EU member states may have leapt 145 per cent last year, but the official figures also show that, of the 662,000 foreign nationals registered for national insurance in 2005, a mere 3 per cent are claiming benefits - half the percentage of the previous year.

These immigrants have taken up all kinds of jobs - from hotel and restaurant staff to hospital cleaners - that the indigenous population eschew. All the evidence is that the incomers have assimilated rather well. There are now more Polish workers in Britain than Irish, who traditionally made up the largest group of external workers, but there is little sense that this has caused any tensions. So long as there are jobs for them, Bulgarian and Romanian incomers should be welcomed too. And by passport officers in plain clothes.