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This 1-minute debate perfectly captures the shameful racism of anti-immigration arguments

WEB PREVIEW | Immigration: How much is too much?

"Am I, or am I not, an 'indigenous Briton'"Mehdi Hasan challenges economist Sir Paul Collier on the costs and benefits of migration.Tune in this Friday 20:00 GMT / 21:00 BST on Al Jazeera English | - available online soon after.

Posted by Al Jazeera: Head to Head on Thursday, August 6, 2015

"Am I or am I not an indigenous Briton?"

It was a fair question for Oxford-educated journalist Mehdi Hasan to pose to Oxford economics professor Paul Collier during their onstage interview. Collier, after all, famously lamented in his 2013 anti-immigration book, Exodus, that "in the 2011 census, it was revealed that the indigenous British had become a minority in their own capital."

Except, as Hasan pointed out, that's only true if you take "indigenous" to mean "native-born and white" rather than just "native-born." "Indigenous British" sure sounds like a euphemism for "white people." And while Collier hemmed and hawed and tried to skirt the issue, his answers ultimately didn't do anything to dispel that impression.

Collier is a professor and author, so it's dispiriting to hear someone so prominent suggest that it's bad and scary, as he implicitly did in his book, for his country to become less white.

But this really matters because it gets to the heart of the debate about immigration in the UK and, to some extent, in other countries as well: that it's really about preserving a certain type of culture that no one wants to say is white, but which many indeed think of as essentially and inherently white. And it's about demanding that the rest of the world pay enormous costs — would-be refugees left in peril, would-be economic migrants left in poverty — simply to save people like Paul Collier the discomfort of adjusting his own sense of national identity to include someone like Mehdi Hasan.

The video clip is short, and the rest of the interview isn't available yet. Perhaps Collier managed to come up with a better explanation that got trimmed from this painfully awkward clip.

But even if that's true, it doesn't answer the deeper problem with the thesis of Collier's book, which was presumably the thesis of his discussion with Hasan as well: the idea that there is something inherently different about "indigenous" Britons versus "immigrants," and that the latter are a threat to the former.

That idea is wrong. It is wrong in the sense that it is incorrect as a conclusion to draw from the available evidence. And it is wrong in the sense that it is a morally unacceptable argument. It is a bad and dangerous idea, and unfortunately Paul Collier is not alone in holding it.

Collier's argument: Immigrants hurt our culture

The argument in Collier's book boils down to one core idea: that to protect rich countries, poor people must stay in poor countries, even if doing so means keeping them there by force. It is an idea that will seem familiar to anyone who has heard arguments in favor of, say, militarizing the US-Mexico border or increasing patrols in the Mediterranean to turn back migrant boats.

Collier's book focuses on the UK and other wealthy nations. And, more specifically, it focuses on a very specific type of nativist fear: that there is some element of essential Englishness that is so delicate it will be diluted and destroyed by immigration, and must be protected from that threat. Many of Collier's underlying points will be familiar to anyone in a developed country that has prominent anti-immigration politics, which is all of them.

For example, there are his warnings that immigrants pose a growing threat to the cultures and institutions of rich countries. "There is now mounting evidence," he wrote, that "the children of immigrants are more resistant to adopting the national culture than are their parents."

This is not correct. As economists Michael Clemens and Justin Sandefur pointed out in their Foreign Affairs review of Collier's book, there's actually substantial evidence that immigrants to the United States today assimilate more rapidly than did immigrants a century ago. And not only that, but the immigrant groups who assimilate most rapidly are those from Cuba, Vietnam, and the Philippines — "hardly countries with social institutions mirroring those of the United States."

But the point is not whether Collier is factually correct (which he isn't), but rather that he is presenting a glossy, academic version of a common anti-immigrant sentiment: that immigrants are different from us in ways that are irreducible, that those differences will irrevocably change our culture, and that this change is frightening and bad.

That is what is revealed in Collier's handwringing about the decline of "indigenous" Britons, in which "indigenous" is apparently defined not just by migration status but by whiteness: that migrants to the UK, no matter how many generations they spend in the country, will never really be British if they're not white. That his ultimate fear is not that immigrants won't culturally integrate, but that they will integrate, and that what it means to be "British" will change from a definition that requires whiteness to a new and different definition.

The real insecurity: changing identity in a changing world

The truth, I suspect, is that Collier wasn't really motivated by a dispassionate review of evidence when he wrote his book, but by something much more human, much more understandable, and that is common in many developed countries: insecurity about how his country is changing, and fear that those changes mean his country will lose the things he loves about it.

It is normal for any person to love parts of his own heritage and to wish to preserve them. Familiarity is comfortable, and change can be unsettling. For Collier, the idea that he might have to accept Hasan as a fellow indigenous Briton means accepting that his country and his own national identity, as he understands them, have changed.

But what Collier refuses to acknowledge, as do many other anti-immigration activists and politicians, is that his demand that his country preserve certain aesthetic qualities — that it keep out immigrants so as to "protect" its "indigenous" culture — means imposing enormous costs on people in other countries.

It means, by limiting immigration, condemning people to lives of poverty simply because they had the bad luck to be born elsewhere. It means leaving the world's most vulnerable people in peril, rather than allowing them to find safety as refugees. It means leaving them to drown in the Mediterranean lest a rescue encourage others to make the crossing. And, not for nothing, it means hurting rich countries, too, depriving them of the economic benefits that immigration brings.

This is a morally depraved argument, made on behalf of a losing argument: Cultures change regardless of how much immigration those countries let in or don't. But it is an idea beneath the surface of an awful lot of the developed world's anti-immigration policies, and thus an idea that affects many millions of people every year. Paul Collier was just unlucky enough to be a bit more honest about it.