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Monica Porter

Like Us or Leave Us

The Times, 12 February 2003

Britain should reject immigrants who dislike its tolerant, democratic values, says Monica Porter

The government’s recent announcement that it aims to cut immigration figures by a whopping 50 per cent was music to my ears. Action at last. But please don’t jump to conclusions – far from being one of your Little Englanders, full of xenophobic, insular notions, I’m a foreigner and former refugee myself.

Long ago my family fled a brutal communist dictatorship and was taken in by a western democracy. This personal history has imbued me with a jaundiced take on the vast numbers who come here under the ‘refugee’ banner. Sadly, it also creates for me a deal of inner conflict, because I realise that it ill behoves someone with an immigrant past to be unsympathetic towards other immigrants. I don’t like being made to feel illiberal – the very opposite of my natural inclination, my education and my upbringing – but while I would far prefer to empathise with them, try as I might, I can’t.

Our lax asylum system has opened the door to newcomers from Kosovo, Albania, Afghanistan, North Africa and Iraq as well as extended family members from Pakistan and Bangladesh. They come to better their economic prospects. I don’t particularly blame them, but neither can I equate their lives and aspirations with my own and those of the émigré community I knew so well when I was growing up.

The difference – and it’s a huge one – is that these new arrivals bring with them an entire belief system which is inherently incompatible with our own values, and are reluctant to moderate it. Why should we welcome as our neighbours, for example, those who consider it a moral imperative for a father to kill his daughter for refusing to enter an arranged marriage? Yet political correctness has made such cowards of us that we play down even murder, for fear of upsetting ethnic sensibilities, so subverting the ideals which underpin our democracy.

It was very different for us Hungarian refugees – 200,000 in all – who fled after Soviet tanks crushed the Uprising in 1956. We didn’t just flee from terror and repression, we fled to something – the freedoms and civil rights offered by the democratic West. In my family’s case, the United States.

My father, Peter Halasz, was a well-known journalist and writer in Budapest, and my mother, Vali Racz, a popular singer. Life became difficult and dangerous for them – as for so many of our compatriots – after the Soviet Union imposed a Stalinist regime on the nation in 1948.

Settling in New York, we were part of a vibrant Hungarian émigré community. Writers, actors, shop-keepers, restaurateurs, publishers, builders. Some were more successful than others, or spoke better English, but they all embraced their new-found liberty and treasured the gift of a new life. If they continued to buy imported Hungarian salami, listen to Magyar music and read the Hungarian émigré newspaper, they nevertheless lived and breathed the American dream. You can do both.

It is the lack of commitment on the part of too many asylum-seekers here to the ‘British dream’ – that of a harmonious and tolerant multi-cultural society – which is the problem.

Home Secretary David Blunkett’s initiative to introduce a compulsory ‘citizenship programme’ for all immigrants applying for a U.K. passport is an excellent idea, inspired by the American model. It reminded me of my parents’ experience in 1962 – the year we became American citizens – when they attended evening classes designed to help prepare them for naturalisation. Blunkett wants the same thing here: in return for the rights and privileges of British nationality, they would need to understand something about British culture, history and society, and have at least a reasonable grasp of the English language.

All too predictably, however, the committee set up to decide the programme’s curriculum placed more emphasis on teaching newcomers how to navigate the system of state benefits, legal aid, citizens’ advice centres and industrial tribunals.

Blunkett also wants an oath of allegiance for new citizens, similar to the one my parents took in America – a vow to respect this country’s freedoms, uphold its democratic values and observe its laws. If breaking this oath could lead – in extreme cases – to the transgressor being stripped of his citizenship, we could deal more effectively with the likes of the monstrous Abu Hamza, late of Finsbury Square Mosque, who has been living here comfortably courtesy of the British taxpayer while plotting our downfall.

I moved to London 33 years ago and immediately fell in love with its cultural and ethnic diversity. Whatever your background, you were made to feel you could belong, and this is the greatest gift a city can bestow on its residents.

It wasn’t until last November that I finally applied for British nationality – along with the 110,000 or so people who apply each year. If only these other aspiring Brits felt as passionately as I do, that – despite its ills – this country still represents the highest human principles and it is a privilege to be part of it.

Multi-culturalism is a nation’s greatest strength. It is no coincidence that America, the world’s only superpower, was forged entirely by ‘huddled masses’ of every complexion. But as we have learnt to our cost, not all immigrants are beneficial, and we must reject those who so blatantly reject us and our ways, even as they live in our midst.