Austen Ivereigh says that illegal immigration is both a symptom and a cause — of British economic success. The dead hand of the state is getting it wrong, as usual: time for a total rethink
So, the government gets tough on illegal immigrants. The UK Borders Bill currently before Parliament plasters the cracks in our borders, imposes zero-tolerance for unscrupulous employers and gangmasters, and restores discipline to the nation’s frontiers by text-messaging Johnny Foreigner to remind him his visa is about to expire. Britain is no longer going to be taken for a ride — and about time too. But there is one issue on which the Bill is eerily silent: the fate of the thousands of illegal immigrants who have made new lives among us.
A few Kurds still enter the UK gasping in the back of lorries, no doubt. But most of the 500,000-odd undocumented migrants — that’s a semi-official Home Office guesstimate — are rather more like Guillermo, a 25-year-old Latin-American who works as a deputy manager in a restaurant chain. Guillermo is not his real name; but nor is it the name in the fake Spanish passport he bought a few years back. Like most illegal immigrants I have met in the past weeks, he flew in on a visa, and in the past six years has been doing well. After a year or two cleaning, he learnt his skills in a coffee chain, from where he was promoted to his current job. ‘I am amazed by what I’ve achieved,’ he says.
Guillermo speaks excellent English, is intelligent, hardworking, taxpaying, ambitious; and he feels at home in the UK. In almost every respect he is just like the other thousands of migrant workers who, according to a recent report by Price- WaterhouseCoopers, have boosted economic growth while keeping a lid on inflation, without increasing unemployment among British-born workers. Migrants do not just take jobs, they create them, doing the work the native-born spurn, and expanding the economy in the process.
It is hard to match Guillermo or the thousands like him with the picture of illegal immigrants painted last week by the Home Secretary, John Reid. ‘It is unfair that foreigners come to this country illegitimately and steal our benefits, steal our services like the NHS, and undermine the minimum wage by working,’ he told the BBC. Guillermo pays taxes, but he cannot register with a GP; he certainly cannot access benefits, and he despises people capable of working who do. And he is paid rather more than the minimum wage, thank you very much.
Keeping him illegal helps no one. He left his small town mired in poverty and political violence with a dream to make progress — and he has succeeded. But he is a sub-citizen: unable to report crimes or get a mortgage or plan for his future — or even return home to see the house Mamá has built with the money he has sent home.
Tough, you say: he should go back. But he won’t. And why should we want him to? He is a net contributor to the nation’s economy and stock, one who adds more to the pie than he takes, while enabling the rest of us to continue to enjoy our slice.
The other large group of illegal immigrants are the 220,000-odd refused asylum- seekers. The current policy — which takes traumatised people and traumatises them more pour encourager les autres — means that fresh claims are now refused within weeks, so that asylum-seekers become illegal immigrants more quickly.
Many of them have been here since the 1990s. They are part of local networks of new friends and church congregations. Although educated and able, anxious to contribute and build new lives, while in the system they have been prevented from working and humiliated by handouts; after their refusals, they lose state support but still cannot work legally, and are forced to sign on each month so that the authorities know where they are in case they ever get round to deporting them — an extreme statistical improbability, as it happens, but the ever-present threat is enough to reduce many of them to psychological jelly.
No wonder, like Abdul, an articulate 34-year-old Kenyan, they ‘go underground’. By the time his claim was turned down eight years ago he was 25 and had been in the UK for five years; he had a diploma in computer studies, and had begun a university course in business and computing. While working in a Burger King to earn the money to continue studying, he married. Now he and his wife have three children, and both work; she part-time, Abdul as a caretaker — a job far below his skill level. He has been here for 14 years, yet lives with the fear that one day his employers will scrutinise his papers and he will be removed, forced to abandon his wife and children. Assuming that doesn’t happen, he won’t be able to attend his father’s funeral.
While churches and NGOs protest about the inhuman treatment of decent people cast into limbo, Nazi youths roam Glasgow housing estates picking on scapegoats, and John Reid appeases tabloids by impersonating Alf Garnett. But everyone avoids the brutal truth: almost all are here to stay. The immigration minister, Liam Byrne, recently announced with pride that for the first time in years the deportation rate — 25,000 a year, or one every 27 minutes — has exceeded fresh claims for asylum. But what he does not say is that at this rate it would take 25 years forcibly to remove illegal immigrants, and cost billions of pounds — all assuming, of course, that no one else applies for asylum or overstays their visa between now and 2042.
Deporting illegal immigrants seems like a solution, but it isn’t going to happen — not to 99 per cent of them. Many British newspapers are committed to deportation in principle, imagining that it is the scroungers Reid depicts who are being handcuffed on to planes. But they are usually against it in practice — when they discover that it involves model asylum-seeker families with children in the village school who are being returned to a possible death. Yet it is precisely these families which are the easiest fodder for deportation quotas.
The government’s other ‘answer’ to illegal immigration is to arrange sudden swoops on offices and restaurants and threaten employers with £5,000 fines for recruiting people who do not have a right to work — even though most employers would be hard-pressed to tell a fake EU passport from a real one.
The chief executive of a restaurant chain told me recently of the anger which the measures are provoking in the business sector. ‘Most of them are afraid of being busted and being made to pay heavy fines for taking on people in good faith,’ he says. ‘And they’re angry at being made to do the Home Office’s job for them after the event.’
A large operation with a human resources department, his company has invested heavily in sophisticated equipment and training — not something most employers can afford — in order to detect ever more elaborately forged IDs, the price of which has dropped to a mere £300. Even then, he says, the IND (the Immigration and Nationality Directorate) takes months to verify whether or not a passport is real. ‘It’s a mess,’ he told me. ‘A total mess.’
The flaw in the government’s thinking is revealed by Byrne’s explanation that he is attacking ‘the causes of illegal immigration, which are the exploitation of vulnerable illegal labour by racketeers’. End the exploitation, in other words, and you end illegal immigration. It is the perfect spin: appease the Daily Mail while appealing to the Guardian’s sense of social justice.
It is also nonsense. Legal migrants are just as likely to be exploited as illegal ones when they first arrive. Exploited migrants often leave again — or move up the ladder and make a new home. A letter I have received from Lena, a highly articulate Russian 23-year-old currently serving a ten-month prison sentence after being caught at Stansted with a false Norwegian passport, tells a typical story: far from being exploited, she is an honest, hard-working estate agent whose boss thinks the world of her and whose language skills (the odd dropped definite article aside) are impressive. Reading her letter — ‘I truly believe and hope that law of this country will see me not as a criminal but as a person who was trying her best to contribute to the community’ — it is hard not to wonder why 8,000 people are serving time in our jails for immigration offences like hers, when there is not enough space in the cells for violent criminals.
The presence of illegal immigrants in the UK really indicates one thing: a disjuncture between the market and the dead hand of the state. Guillermo, Abdul and Lena have stayed in Britain because they were able to find work and opportunity, not because they were exploited. New Labour gave up long ago on the idea of a ‘managed economy’, but it treats people — unlike goods and services — as subject to the diktats of central planning. And it doesn’t work.
A more sensible approach starts from the assumption that it is a successful economy that accounts for illegal immigration. Rather than ineffectually harassing employers and condemning honest, hardworking people to a furtive existence beyond the law, we can accept the reality that thousands have made successful new lives in the UK, and naturalise them. They have done it in many EU nations, and are poised to do so in the United States, where a massive 800,000 Mexicans will become US citizens.
The trick of amnesties is to balance the right to migrate with maintaining a deterrent. The Strangers into Citizens campaign proposes just this: that those who have been in the UK for at least four years should be given a two-year work permit, at the end of which, subject to certain criteria (employer and character references, proficiency in English, and — all right, Gordon Brown — community service), they are given leave to remain. Criminals and extremists are weeded out; thousands of people get the dignity and rights which they deserve; the underground economy shrinks, and general happiness reigns; employers can take on the people they need; taxpayers no longer pay for the asylum logjam; the Exchequer benefits by about £5 billion; MPs no longer have to spend half their surgery hours dealing with immigration problems; the police can concentrate on deporting the genuine undesirables; and Britain takes its place once more as a beacon of realism and pragmatism.
The Home Office says this would only encourage more illegal migrants. But there is no evidence from Europe of this. In the US, Republicans back regularisation as a means of enforcing borders: by shrinking the underground economy, you curb the trade on which illegal immigration thrives. The real reason the government is opposed — according to a former policy adviser in No. 10 Downing Street who drew up three amnesty plans, all shelved — is simple: it is afraid of not looking tough. Could it be that the Glasgow Nazis are stronger than they look?
Austen Ivereigh is co-ordinator of Strangers into Citizens, a campaign by the Citizen Organising Foundation.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 17, 2007