Why a call for amnesty for immigrants illegally in the UK is counter-productive for them


9:20 am - July 1st 2013

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by Tim Finch

The news that US legislators have moved one step close to introducing a large-scale amnesty for immigrants living illegally there has inevitably led to calls, most strikingly from a leading Tory backbencher, for something similar in the UK.

A few years ago I would have supported such calls, and indeed marched many times under the Strangers into Citizens banner. But while leading a major piece of IPPR research on irregular immigration a couple of years ago I changed my mind.

The reason I did is simple – there’s a quicker and more realistic way of achieving the same result. It’s less politically contentious, flexible and responsive, avoids stirring up public angst and delivers results. Moreover, it is in effect existing government policy and practice.

What I’m talking about is case by case (very occasionally group by group) regularisation in instances where it is clear that return or removal is not feasible or safe. Without any fanfare this approach has been pursued with reasonable success for a number of years, regularising many thousands, without derailing our managed migration system.

To take just one example: I’ve been associated with an organisation called the Zimbabwe Association for a number of years. It used to be the case that most of our members were failed asylum seekers fighting deportation or detention. Some were no doubt wrongly refused protection; but there will have been others who had a weak case for asylum.

Now, though, pretty much every one – hundreds in all – have been granted some kind of legal status in the UK. Do you remember an amnesty for Zimbabwean asylum seekers being announced? Quite. But by other means the same end has been achieved. The process has been opaque, convoluted, inconsistent, imperfect in many ways, but the result has been that many Zimbabweans, fearful of returning to a country still ruled by Mugabe, have been allowed to stay in the UK and to start building new lives.

By contrast, if they’d been relying on a large scale, pre-announced amnesty or the introduction of a comprehensive ‘pathway to citizenship’ (which in fact is what the Senate approved in the US), they would still be trapped in the limbo of irregularity.

Of course open, upfront regularisation schemes, which attach clear conditions to achieving citizenship and which can distinguish between people who have fallen foul of the system and those who’ve set out to evade it, are intrinsically preferable. They are more transparent and democratically accountable. If conditions would allow , a scheme of this sort would be the best response to reducing the UK’s substantial population of irregular migrants for the benefit of everyone.

But there is no prospect of commanding sufficient political support to introduce such a system in the foreseeable future. (Nick Clegg has dropped the LD regularisation project too). The political argument is being won in the US in a very different demographic and political context. If it is a ‘proper’ regularisation scheme or nothing in the UK, we will end up with nothing.

More than that, even calling for ‘big bang’ solutions is counter productive as it actually narrows the political space for taking a pragmatic and reasonably humane approach to reducing irregularity.

So although it is not very noble and principled perhaps, the better course is to turn down the heat on the government to make a big gesture and instead to leave it to pursue (and perhaps over time extend) a low-key approach that, for all its faults, is helping to resolve a very thorny problem. In doing so it is improving the lives of both thousands of very vulnerable people and tacking a social issue which blights the communities in which they live.


Tim Finch is a former head of migration at IPPR and author of the forthcoming novel about refugees The House of Journalists

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Reader comments


Certainly an interesting and worthwhile point of view.
Going for general amnesties is too political and difficult to achieve. The politicians are too scared of the newspapers and people like Nick Ferrari on the radio.

But the immigration situation we face now is just a joke.
You only have to watch UK Border Force on TV to see what a mess it is. I do wonder if liberal people ever watch things like that. I saw it last night about an Indian national and his two wives who had made a few million pounds selling dodgy visas to maybe a thousand illegals. One of the Border Force officers said that many of the hundreds of visa agencies were crooked.
Maybe he spoke out of turn, but that’s what he said.

London will have ten million people in the not too distant future. It might work, but it probably will mean third world conditions come to areas of the country. Mostly hidden away from plain view though.
I was looking at it myself just this last couple of weeks in Gloucester. I’d not be surprised if some the men at one car wash I saw were illegal.
One side of town is where you get the bed sits and the houses of multiple occupancy where the young men from Iraq, Afghanistan etc live. You can never really know who those people really are though. They’re just there.

Btw, if Zimbabwe is so dangerous, shouldn’t we be helping those people GET to Britain? Not just granting them leave to remain if they manage to get here.

2. John Reid

What Damon said

3. Man on Clapham Omnibus

Sounds like a good approach to me.

This is a good article, but as a political activist, how should I respond? Our only method for change is to campaign, and surely we can only campaign for a clear change of direction. How can we have any confidence that piping down over this will lead to an increase in covert regularisations?

My view is that we should still be demanding an amnesty, but for a more limited group. It is the children who are living here illegally through no fault of their own who are most in need of regularisation. An Oxford University COMPAS report estimated there to be 120,000 irregular migrant children living here, often in destitution. I think a campaign to regularise these children and their parents, with the complete emphasis on child welfare, would receive more public sympathy than a total amnesty.

5. tim finch

I’ve a lot of sympathy with Duncan Stott’s position, and it possibly does offer a ‘middle way’ (excuse dread word) between my super pragmatism and something more comprehensive. IPPR did in fact argue for families with children being prioritised for regularisation in our ‘No Easy Options report http://www.ippr.org/publication/55/1837/no-easy-options-irregular-immigration-in-the-uk Of course there is a slight danger that this encourages desperate irregulars to start families in order to benefit, but like the idea that young working class women choose to have babies just to get on the council housing list I suspect this is more of an urban myth than a reality. Generally, my point is don’t let the best be the enemy of the good

What I’m talking about is case by case (very occasionally group by group) regularisation in instances where it is clear that return or removal is not feasible or safe. Without any fanfare this approach has been pursued with reasonable success for a number of years, regularising many thousands, without derailing our managed migration system.

Translation: People (quite reasonable, in my view) object to the government making large numbers of illegal immigrants into British citizens for reasons of ideology and/or administrative convenience. However, if they don’t know that the government is making large numbers of illegal immigrants into British citizens, they can’t really object, can they? A plan with no drawbacks!

If conditions would allow , a scheme of this sort would be the best response to reducing the UK’s substantial population of irregular migrants for the benefit of everyone.

I’m having trouble parsing this sentence, but I take it that you mean it would have the effect of reducing our substantial population of illegal immigrants by… making them into British citizens?

@5

Of course there is a slight danger that this encourages desperate irregulars to start families in order to benefit

In Ireland they had to change the constitution to ”close a loophole” that was said to be being exploited by asylum seekers and other would-be immigrants. There were definitely cases of heavily pregnant African women arriving in Ireland to give birth. Even arriving on the ferry from Wales.
http://struggle.ws/wsm/ws/2004/82/referendum.html


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