Why my immigrant father says he is voting to leave the EU

Who do you think you are?
Who do you think you are?
Image: Reuters/Neil Hall
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My dad is a first-generation immigrant. On Thursday (June 23), he will be voting for the UK to leave the European Union (EU) in the upcoming referendum. His sole reason? Immigration. 

It sounds crazy, but it’s hard to dismiss. He recently sent me a quote from an article to make his point: ”For millions of people, the word ‘immigration’ is reducible to yet another seismic change no one thought to ask them about, or even explain.”

For my dad, this referendum is more than just about the EU. It’s his chance to be heard by those—including his son—who aren’t listening. Over a Father’s Day argument conversation, I listened. I asked him, what gives?

For context, my dad came to the UK in the 1960s. A Malaysian-born Chinese of Hong Kong stock, he went to school in the English countryside, studied accountancy in Manchester, and then worked at academic institutions in London. He loved meeting overseas students. He admires Charles Dickens and the Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, is a practicing Buddhist, and is a longtime subscriber to the famously left-leaning newspaper The Guardian. He is, in other words, a liberal soul and an immigrant that this country would generally respect.

But, over the last 25 years, his London suburb has changed dramatically. From mainly white British folks to a mix of Indians, Pakistanis, Serbians, and Chinese.

You’d think that multiculturalism would be a comfort to a person belonging to an ethnic minority. But, he says, immigrants refuse to integrate. “How many neighbors do we know? Hardly any,” he sighs.

People these days largely keep to themselves. Conservative cultures ghettoize rather than integrate. I can see reasons for that. In the digital age, it’s ironically become easier to bask in your own culture than experience those next to you.

“Minorities always demand something,” he said. Of course, he would know.

“If you have a minority that’s very vocal and very conservative, you have trouble.” Such cultures come into the country and demand that you accommodate them rather than they adapt.

“The Chinese migrate without raising the parapets,” he says. “We don’t create ghettos.”

“But Chinatown?” I protest.

Chinatown’s business. The Chinese adapt. Other cultures, he thinks, often don’t. He doesn’t see that his argument is the exact one that has been leveled at new immigrants for generations–often by preceding immigrant groups.

Having been born and raised in a Muslim country, he is always reminded of Malaysia’s history of political and racial tensions. The danger as he sees it is that some of the personal freedoms and equalities we treasure—women’s rights, LGBT rights—will not be tolerated let alone followed in conservative ghettos. He fears a tip in power, perhaps combined with political correctness, that would lead to compromises on personal freedoms and the ways in which UK operates.

This is why he’s taking a stand, by voting to leave the EU. “I’m doing this for you,” he says, “For my children, for your children, for our futures.”

His arguments sound selfish to me. “What about helping those who have less?” I ask.

My dad is a kind, giving man. He often buys The Big Issue to support the homeless. He donates to charities fighting poverty. He builds shelters for stray animals.

But he believes that “uncontrolled” immigration threatens the very dream for which he moved to the UK himself. He fears it will diminish the UK as a destination for education, opportunity, and economic stability. These are things that a western country offers over his country of birth.

I’ve thrown every fact and figure at him. Economists predict that the UK will be far worse off without the EU. Politicians across the world warn that the UK will lose its clout on the world stage if it left the EU. Even immigration may not be stalled because an aging society that has a huge welfare state will need an influx of younger people to keep living a decent life.

But his vote is not about facts and figures anymore. It’s about his emotions.