The morning after the death of Steve Jobs, David Cameron led the political tributes to the Apple co-founder. "The world has lost one of the most inventive, creative, entrepreneurial geniuses of our time," the prime minister remarked. "He has inspired whole generations of future inventors, creators and entrepreneurs, and that's going to be a tremendous legacy that he leaves."

Jobs, as countless obituaries and profiles have since noted, was the son of a Syrian immigrant. Abdulfattah Jandali arrived in the United States in 1952 to study for a PhD in political science at the University of Wisconsin. Had he been denied his student visa, Steve would not have been born in the US, and Apple never founded in California.

On Monday, four days after his tribute to Jobs, Cameron decided to tackle the issue of net migration to the UK, students included. "I've never shied away from talking about immigration," proclaimed the PM, as he delivered his second major speech on the subject in just six months.

Thankfully he eschewed the inflammatory rhetoric of his predecessors. "Swamping" (©Margaret Thatcher) didn't make an appearance; nor did "British jobs for British workers" (©Gordon Brown). Nonetheless, it was a relentlessly negative speech, focused on the need to "get a grip" on the "problem" of immigration, with repeated references to "illegal immigrants" and "bogus students". On immigration there has been no rebranding, detoxifying or modernising: Cameron is an unreconstructed Thatcherite who panders to far-right voters. "Yes, some immigration is a good thing," he confessed begrudgingly, before going on to decry "excessive" and "badly controlled" immigration.

Once again, he conspicuously omitted to mention his own migrant background: his great-great-grandfather, Emile Levita, a German-Jewish financier, arrived in the UK as an economic migrant in the 1850s and obtained British citizenship in 1871. It would have helped to personalise the issue. When it comes to migrants, it is far too easy to generalise, stereotype, dehumanise. They are, by definition, the "other".

Instead, the prime minister's speech was a sop to the Tory right. He called for "everyone in the country" to help report illegal immigrants to the police. But how will members of the public distinguish between legal and illegal migrants? Can I be the only one worrying about the empowering of racist busybodies?

Cameron also referred to the "obvious risk" of migrants and their families becoming a "burden" on the welfare system and the British taxpayer. He should be ashamed of himself. My own mother migrated to the UK from India in 1974 on a marriage visa. She spent the following decades working as a doctor in the NHS, saving countless lives and paying hundreds of thousands of pounds in tax in the process. Forgive me if I take it personally when the prime minister suggests that "family migrants" have become a "burden on the taxpayer".

Monday's speech wasn't just negative, it was deeply disingenuous. Cameron defended the coalition's new limit of 20,700 non-EU migrant workers a year, claiming it had "been undersubscribed each and every month". On this basis, he suggested, a "further tightening of the system" could be justified. But there is a rather obvious reason as to why fewer migrants are applying to work here: the economy has flatlined over the last year.

In addition, according to a recent survey carried out by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, employers are dodging the restrictions by recruiting more workers from the EU, who are unaffected by the cap. One in five businesses questioned revealed they still planned to recruit migrants in the next quarter – the highest figure in the history of the institute's research.

Cameron's rebarbative speech is further evidence of how the "debate" over immigration is suffused with myths and misconceptions. The public is bombarded by a cascade of falsehoods promulgated by populist politicians and dishonest journalists. Yet the inconvenient truth is that immigrants are not a "burden", they are key drivers of economic growth. As Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute for Economic and Social Research argues in this week's New Statesman, lifting the coalition's restrictions on immigration would "boost growth not just in the short term but over the medium to long term, too, while reducing the deficit". A report by his organisation earlier this year found eastern Europeans added almost £5bn to Britain's economy between 2004 and 2009.

But what of the poor natives? The millions of Britons languishing on out-of-work benefits? We are regaled, in prime ministerial speeches, BBC radio phone-ins and rightwing tabloids, with tales of the hard-working British builder or plumber who has been replaced, or undercut, by the cheaper Pole or Lithuanian. Yet the evidence is mixed. In fact, as economist Jonathan Wadsworth of the government's Migration Advisory Committee, notes: "It is hard to find evidence of much displacement of UK workers or lower wages, on average."

The key point, however, is that the economic benefits of immigration accumulate over time. As the economist Philippe Legrain has written: "Most innovation nowadays comes from groups of talented people sparking off each other – and foreigners with different ideas, perspectives and experiences add something extra to the mix."

Greater diversity is the best defence against group-think and, thus, the biggest driver of innovation and economic dynamism. Take Silicon Valley, where more than half the technology start-ups – including Google, Intel, Yahoo and Ebay – had one or more immigrants as a key founder. But take the British high street, too. Had Avram Kohen not arrived on these shores from Poland in the late 19th century, his son Jack would not have been able to start Tesco in 1919. And had Mikhail Marks not been allowed to migrate to the UK from Belarus in the 1880s, he would never have met Thomas Spencer and created M&S.

If Britain is to prosper and flourish in the coming century, we need more migrants, not fewer. But first we need brave and far-sighted political leaders who recognise immigration as an opportunity, not a threat; as a blessing, not a curse.



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