Thanks to EU guest workers, the US and UK are going opposite directions on immigration policy

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Why are the immigration debates in the United Kingdom and the United States going in opposite directions? Part of the answer is in the chart above:  During a time of economic trouble, Britain saw a surge in foreign workers that the US did not.

In the UK, where restricting immigration is popular, the Labour party just balked after threatening to come out with a hard line against Tesco and Next, two big retailers who rely on low-cost guest-workers during busy times despite the UK’s high unemployment. The climb-down—after advance versions of a speech accused the retailers of favoring foreign workers over British ones , which the companies deny— may hurt the party’s efforts to make up ground on the issue against the ruling Conservative party, which has run publicly-funded ads telling unauthorized immigrants to go home.

Meanwhile, in the US, where unemployment is also high, the Democratic party is linking up with big business and immigrant advocates to push for more legal immigration. Public opinion polls show a majority of people think immigration is good, though most say it should be kept at its present levels. The conventional wisdom is that Republicans need to be seen as more immigrant friendly to have a better chance of winning national elections in a demographically changing country.

How did the US and UK part ways in the way they think about immigration? You can blame the difference on the European Union. Between 1995 and 2005, the US and the UK increased the foreign-born share of their population at about the same rate. But the UK opened its borders to EU workers in 2004, and saw an increasing its population of foreign nationals. By 2005, the UK had a bigger share of foreign nationals than the US, thanks in large part to the 700,000 Eastern Europeans who came as part of the European Union’s common labor market.

During the global recession, immigrants actually left the US (contributing to a freeze in immigration from Mexico) while they poured into the UK at the fastest rate in the last two decades as Britain’s economy suffered. There were many factors that played a much larger casual role in these woes, but the correlation was certainly noticed by the British public.

All that might give pause to the politicians arguing in favor of more immigrants to the US today, but the bill lawmakers are considering wouldn’t bring as large an increase in immigration to the US as the UK saw nor as fast. Meanwhile, even if Congress does nothing at all, the US will still end up with its largest-ever share of foreign-born population.