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Is British Immigration Really out of Control, Like Brexit Proponents Claim?

A Vote to Leave campaigner holds a placard as the leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage, campaigns for votes to leave the European Union on May 25.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

It’s official: The U.K. has voted to leave the EU. This post was written on Thursday before the final results.

If you believe the polling data, frustrations about immigration have driven the Brexit campaign more than any other single issue. EU rules requiring open borders for workers have brought a flood of new arrivals to Britain, especially from Central European countries like Poland. Last year, net migration reached 333,000, more than double the level in 2000. To hear the Leave campaign tell it, those numbers are simply out of control. But how immigrant-heavy is today’s Britain, really?

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One way to think about it is to compare the U.K. and United States. In 2014, immigrants made up 13.3 percent of the U.S. population, up from 7.9 percent in 1990, according to the Migration Policy Institute. And Great Britain? The numbers are remarkably similar. The Migration Observatory at Oxford says the country was about 13.1 percent foreign-born in 2014, up from 7 percent in 1993. Migration as a percentage of the population is also a little bit higher here in the states than across the pond—3.86 per thousand people versus 2.54 per thousand, according to the CIA Factbook.

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You can argue about whether or not the U.S. is better equipped culturally to absorb that many migrants, or if either country is up to the task. But what’s occurred in the U.K. isn’t beyond the scope of what’s happening in some other parts of the West. And for those inclined to see parallels between the Brexit campaign and America’s Trump-led anti-immigrant revolt, these numbers give us one more similarity.

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Also, here’s another important note about Britain’s immigration dynamics. While some of the more flatly nativist rhetoric from far-right Brexiters would give you the impression that the whole of Great Britain has been taken over by Polish and Romanian migrants, that’s not really the case. The epicenter of the country’s immigration wave is London—the Migration Observatory finds foreign-born residents make up 39 percent of the population in inner London and 33 percent in its outer boroughs (for context, that’s similar to New York City, which is 37 percent foreign-born). London also claims about 37 percent of the country’s entire foreign-born population. The next most heavily immigrant region in the country is just 13 percent foreign-born, and most others are closer to 5 percent. However, the arrival of immigrants in these areas may be more noticeable—and disturbing to some—because they had so few 20 years ago. They’ve gone from a virtually no-migrant population to a small one.

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Notably, multiethnic London itself is generally considered a stronghold for the Remain campaign, while the leave camp tends to fare better in outlying areas. It seems similar to the dynamic here in the U.S., where some of the fiercest anti-immigrant sentiment is often found in places, like Alabama, where very few immigrants actually live. (Of course, that might be part of the reason so few choose to move to those regions in the first place.)

Read more Slate coverage of the Brexit vote.

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