Matt Cavanaugh has written a well argued report on the government's problematic immigration policy. (The report is also discussed by The Guardian here.) The report is summarised in Matt's essay at the New Statesman.
The government is committed to a big reduction (ca. 100,000) in net migration by the next general election. One key plank has been a major reduction in student visas for non-EU students. This is a lucrative market with major benefits - both economic, cultural, and intellectual - for the higher education sector. Most non-EU students were found to return to their home countries after completing their studies as well. But reducing student visas is easy. The government may not be able to control how many from the EU enter the UK, but they can control these numbers on students and they have. The political decision was made: it was better to suffer the negative economic effects and damage to the higher education sector than to see "not enough" (to who?) done on immigration - and so non-EU student visas got the chop to the tune of about 75,000 (in figures I've seen).
A second key plank is reforming the terms by which temporary non-EU workers in the UK may apply to become permanent residents and even citizens. The big idea is that five year temporary work visas for non-EU workers will remain available, but workers will be expected to leave when this period is over. The present situation is that non-EU workers can either (a) apply to renew their temporary visa for a further period of time or (b) apply for a permanent work visa (or "Indefinite Leave to Remain"). (You may apply for citizenship one year after gaining ILR.)
Matt Cavanaugh's critique is excellent and thorough - and I highly recommend readers read the above noted report. He raises several important points - not least that the majority of economic migrants return to their home countries anyway. Some may worry that increasing net migration will lead to the UK becoming "overpopulated" in decades to come, but this worry is ill founded when you look at the long term facts, namely, most will return home. In raising barriers, the UK becomes nothing more than a less desirable place for ambitious, highly skilled migrant workers to come for work and they will choose to bring their skills and international contacts elsewhere. This will not benefit the UK's relative competitive advantage, but instead put the UK at a possible disadvantage. This cannot be a good long term strategy and so the policy should be redrawn.
There is more that can be said. Few acknowledge the further facts that the fees for non-EU immigrants are not inexpensive. It may surprise readers to know the fees -- once often free or virtually free -- have risen to hundreds of pounds and more. For example, the Indefinite Leave to Remain visa application costs over £1,100 . . . after you have already paid for a temporary visa and proven you have lived in the country without taking benefits for a period of not less than five years. The citizenship application + processing fees come to just under another £900. These fees do not include the original visa fees nor the fee to sit the citizenship test (which many fail and must retake).
It may be further surprising for readers to know that I became a UK citizen as fast as I could . . . and I only became a UK citizen last month. I originally came to the UK (after two years in Ireland) in 2001. So 10+ years. I had to prove I was never on public benefits, never bankrupt, no (spent or unspent) criminal convictions - I even had to prove I had no points on my driver's licence. Oh, and that I passed the citizenship test. Plus, about £2,000+ in fees and paying tax (without any recourse to benefits) all this time. (Don't say: no taxation without representation.)
If I knew the hurdles I would have faced, then I'm unsure whether I would have moved in the first place. I know this is a view shared by many other colleagues. My worry is that the government - in enacting a policy designed to reduce 40,000 to about 1,000 - will do far more damage than good.
So what do we need? We need a commission to investigate the full picture and examine both the public anxiety, the economic and social benefit case, and provide some objective steer to politicians - on a difficult political issue - with clear, broad recommendations that will command broad support. The time is now.
UPDATE: I also recommend this excellent thread at Crooked Timber on this issue.