The role of race in immigration

by | Apr 19, 2018 | Migration, Racism/Xenphobia | 0 comments

by Salma Al-Hassan

This post seeks to explore how political and media discourse can be seen to heavily impact the way in which ‘race’ is employed in regards to immigration. The racialization of migration appears to be explicit in tabloid media whilst political discourse and immigration policy have shifted to a more implicit form of racialization, nonetheless it is still evident. Fox (2012), suggests that ‘racialisation occurs when the category of race is invoked and evoked in discursive and institutional practices to order and structure social relations’. Although race is a socially constructed ideal with no scientific basis, it is still used in order to shape social realities and promote the idea of the ‘other’. In this way we can see how media and political discourse play key roles in defining society’s understanding of immigration; establishing what is and is not seen as ‘desirable’.

‘Desirability’ in immigration can be seen through the notion of ‘whiteness’. It can be argued that desirability was explicitly part of immigration policy in the past, but has now become more implicit. The Immigration Act of 1962 which exempted Irish immigrants from immigration control- despite the fact they are neither UK citizens nor part of the Commonwealth- explicitly demonstrates the way in which their shared ‘whiteness’ was seen as desirable to UK policy (Paul 1997). Particularly when compared to the fact that Commonwealth subjects were subjected to tighter immigration control as a result of the act, demonstrating explicit institutional racism (Fox 2012). Erel et al. (2016) explore the continuity of political discourse on immigration from the 1950s in recent immigration policy. This is seen through Eastern European migrant workers in 2004 and 2007, known as the A8 and A2. Immigration policy towards these migrants demonstrates the way in which their categorisation as ‘white’ rendered them as initially desirable in the eyes of the government, highlighting the role of racially selective immigration policy. The example of the A8 suggests that racism which was explicit in policy in the past, continues to influence current policy and is reproduced in modern day.

Hostility generated through policy is reinforced by media discourse, particularly in tabloid journalism.

However, despite the fact that Eastern European migrants have the privilege of whiteness over darker skinned immigrants, they are still subjected to racial discrimination due to perceived levels of whiteness. This is demonstrated through the A2 countries; Romania and Hungary, who were accepted 3 years later and with tighter restrictions. In this way, political discourse did not explicitly elicit the racialisation of A2 migrants, but as a result produced racialized effects as Romanians and Hungarians can effectively be seen to have been stripped of their ‘whiteness’, due to the refusal to recognise them as full Europeans with the associated rights (Fox 2012). In this way immigration policy can be seen to validate hostility towards migrants which in turn leads to increased racialization as they are perceived as undesirable (Mulvey 2010), demonstrating what it means to be ‘desirably white’ within ‘whiteness’ itself.

Such hostility generated through policy is arguably reinforced by media discourse, particularly in tabloid journalism. This is seen through the language and imagery used by media outlets such as the Daily Express or the Sun. An internet search of ‘Daily Express immigration headlines’ produces results such as ‘Immigrants bring more crime’ and ‘Migrants take all new jobs’.

Currently, the impact from such political and media discourse is evident in the shift in attitudes towards migrants post Brexit. A spike in hate crimes following the referendum is ‘directly linked to the vote’, claimed journalist Alan Travis, suggesting that, due to both media and political dissemination, the public has taken the vote as ‘licence to act in racist and discriminatory ways’. According to the Home Office, the number of hate crimes in England and Wales has increased between 29% over 2016-17, of which 78% were racially motivated- the largest increase since the Home Office began recording figures in 2011-2012.

To conclude it can be argued that race plays a huge role in political and media discourse surrounding immigration. The notion of ‘whiteness’ can be seen to act as implicit criteria for racialized immigration policy whilst tabloids opt for more explicit forms of racialization, thus affecting the public’s views and attitudes towards migrants.


BBC News. (2017). Rise in hate crime in England and Wales. [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Mar. 2018].
Erel, U., Murji, K. and Nahaboo, Z. (2016). Understanding the contemporary race–migration nexus. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 39(8), pp.1339-1360.
Fox, J., Morosanu, L. and Szilassy, E. (2012). The Racialization of the New European Migration to the UK. Sociology, 46(4), pp. 680-695.
Mulvey, G., 2010. When Policy Creates Politics: the Problematizing of Immigration and the Consequences for Refugee Integration in the UK. Journal of Refugee Studies 23(4), pp. 437–462.
Paul, K (1997) Whitewashing Britain: Race and Citizenship in the Post war Era. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.


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