At a time when the debate on immigration in the US seems to be going in a more liberal direction, things in the UK have become far far worse. One manifestation of this was a co-ordinated series of over 200 raids yesterday by the UK Home Office, which detained more than 100 people suspected of immigration and visa offences. Many of the raids took place in and around tube and rail stations in areas of London with high non-white populations and, according to eyewitnesses, involved the selection and harassment for “papers! papers!” of people who – at least in the view of the enforcement heavies – looked foreign. This is certainly an abuse of power by the Home Office: expect claims for compensation from racially-profiled British people and other legal challenges shortly. Needless to say, random harassment of non-white people also threatens a serious deterioration in race relations in some parts of London. The raids come immediately after a campaign involving a large truck driven around those same areas of London with the the offensive suggestion that people of irregular status should “go home”. Though this campaign is pitched as enforcement against people who don’t have the right to be in the UK, very very many of those with irregular status are in limbo not through any fault of their own, but because the Home Office (and formerly the UK Border Agency) has failed to process applications in a timely manner, has lost vital personal documents and so on.
The political background to this has two aspects. The first is the Tory party’s obsessive focus on the “net migration” figures. Since there is so much about immigration that the Tories cannot control, they have tried to reduce the flows of people that they can. Students, workers from outside the EU and the partners of UK citizens who want to reside in the UK have been particular targets. This has led to many heartbreaking stories of divided families, often catalogued by the excellent BritCits blog [see also Migrants’ Rights Network’s ongoing campaign]. The second aspect is that the Tories face electoral competition on their right from the the UK Independence Party. (The ideal voter being chased here is a racist boor in late middle age, propping up a bar somewhere in Essex.) After attempting to “detoxify” the Tory party before the 2010 election, David Cameron, under the influence of his Australian election strategist Lynton Crosby, is now retoxifying it as fast as he can.
It would be nice to think that the official opposition, in the shape of the Labour Party would oppose this stuff. Labour’s shadow minister for immigration is Chris Bryant MP. His greatest anxiety seems to be to avoid being seen as “soft” on immigration rather than trying to articulate better policies. When the Tory chairman Grant Shapps claimed that Labour would relax controls, Bryant angrily tweeted that this was “a lie”. In a recent Parliamentary debate on family migration at which MP after MP (including at least one Conservative) stood up to explain the hardship that families separated by the high minimum income requirement for spousal sponsorship were suffering, Bryant made a rather hand-wringing speech before failing to oppose government policy. I know that Labour will never commit to the kind of liberal policy that I’d like to see, but even some basic humanity towards divided families and some sensible policies on regularization of status for long-term residents seem to be beyond Bryant and Labour, so fearful are they of a bad headline in the Daily Mail.
Among the political class, the most vocal dissent to the policy has come from the Liberal Democrats in the shape of former minister Sarah Teather, who recently revealed that the working group charged with migration issues had set itself the task of devising a “hostile environment” for migrants. The “racist van” and the raids are no doubt part of this, but the key tactic is to deprive migrants of access not only to public services but even to the means of life. Rather than the state policing migration directly, the government is trying to put legal obligations on professionals, on employers, and even on private citizens to deny access to jobs, housing, and services. In higher education, institutions that fail to perform their policing role can be denied a licence to teach lucrative overseas students. Anyone who employs an individual with irregular status is subject to a fine, and shortly, anyone who lets a room to such a person will risk penalties. (In my own experience, this is starting to have an impact not just on irregulars but even on EU citizens who are obliged by employment agencies to produce more and more documentation to prove their right to work.) In addition to these policies, there are also proposals to require payment of bonds by “high-risk” visitors from a number of countries such as India, Pakistan and Nigeria (though, tellingly, not from “white Commonwealth” countries or the US).
Meanwhile, in the background, a (slightly) more academic debate has been going on between David Goodhart, the Director of Demos, a think-tank, and, among others, Jonathan Portes, the Director of NIESR. Goodhart’s recent book, The British Dream, attempted to provide the intellectual case for restrictive migration policies. Unfortunately for him, as Portes has repeatedly pointed out, the book is littered with basic factual howlers. Whatever his shortcomings as a writer and researcher, though, Goodhart does play an ideological role in the wider public debate. Represented as being “of the left” (absurdly, in my view), Goodhart, by his existence enables right-wing commentators to make the “Even sensible people on the left …” rhetorical move. On the other side, Portes has been rather tirelessly chipping away to make the case that liberal migration policies are good and necessary for the economy, a useful task in the face of claims from the Tories that immigration is a drain on “the taxpayer”. Faced with rhetoric about migrants being drawn to the UK to draw welfare benefits and free health care, Portes has been excellent in arguing that migrants are more likely to work than the general population and less likely to be costing the state money. If it were the facts that mattered, then Portes’s opponents would have been forced to retreat long ago. Unfortunately putting the facts out there is a Sisyphean task: you can say it and say it again, only to be faced with interviewers who demand you respond to “public anxiety”.
I fear that the immediate future is bleak. There will be a general election within a couple of years and the Tories have clearly calculated that this an issue where they can do well. They may face eventual defeat in the courts (they’ve had some setbacks already) as divided families seek redress under Article 8. However, I almost get the feeling that Theresa May relishes such defeats as she can deploy them to rail against unelected judges and the “human rights lobby”. Still, the family migration issue is probably the best “wedge” aspect of migration to campaign on at the moment, since it is easy to demonstrate that many perfectly ordinary snow-white Englanders are being adversely affected. That may provide the political basis for a coalition in defence of migration rights more broadly. However, in the mean time, irregular migrants need defending, particularly in terms of their access to legal and medical services and from the continuing harassment campaign from the Home Office.