‘Illegal immigrants’, are the most dehumanised population in the construction of the narrative of ‘fear’ and its associated propaganda. The use and abuse of undocumented people and the myths generated around them has had serious consequences for democratic societies from Brexit to the US presidential election. On a daily basis we are told that there are hundreds of thousands of ‘illegals’ and we should all be afraid for our jobs, houses, and hospital beds as they are coming here to take them.
When the Oxford Migration Observatory looked into newspaper coverage of immigration in the UK, they found that over a 10 year period, the term most frequently associated with ‘immigrant’ is ‘illegal’.
More recently, in the aftermath of Grenfell, we at Migrants Organise were besieged by journalists looking for a story on the ‘illegals’, assuming that there must have been at least 50 undocumented people residing in the Tower. Many found it hard to believe that we have only been able to identify five, of whom two were actually underdocumented or in the process of regulating their status.
The reality is that people without immigration status are already here and it is impossible to tell how many there are, where they’re from and when they arrived. They are invisible, and contrary to popular belief have not ‘sneaked’ into the country when no one was watching.
Although clandestine entry feeds the imagination of right-wing populists and their press, the majority of undocumented migrants are overstayers. At the time of entry they had some form of status as students, visitors, workers or spouses and they were able to establish themselves in the community. And then things got complicated – they suffer from a lack of knowledge about immigration rules or are misled and exploited by unscrupulous employers, lawyers and family members. Very little is known about their daily life and the exploitation, fear, shame and isolation they face. Inevitably, many people are subjected to blackmail, sexual abuse and modern slavery.
Academic studies and government commissioned research over the past decade estimates the number of undocumented migrants in the UK to be between 300,000 and 800,000. Around 120,000 are children and young people.
The majority of these people are hiding in plain sight, and are able do so because they are just like us, trying to make the best life for themselves and their families. They survive not because they have super powers, but because our economy is structured in a way to depend on cheap labour to deliver higher profits.
Those complaining that undocumented migrants enter the country with the intention to overstay refuse to acknowledge that economic hardship and global inequality – often the result of colonialism – is also life-threatening. Economic injustice, corruption, violence and environmental destruction is forcing people to leave their homes; put their lives at risk; and search for a job, however exploitative, to enable them to support their families.
In receiving countries such as the UK, undocumented people are maintaining industries that would not survive without them. They end up working for less than the minimum wage in terrible conditions, because they have no choice. The welfare state does not exist for them and laws and unions provide little protection for the invisible.
Frequently, as in the case of the Windrush scandal, and potentially for EU citizens too, these people become ‘illegal’ by one stroke of the government’s pen, when politicians change laws to appease xenophobic sentiment.
The ‘hostile environment’ and rhetoric of ‘border control’ reinforces the myth that our social problems – from lack of housing to long NHS waiting times, and of course terrorism – is caused by immigrants. In reality the hostile environment policy is punishing people across an intersection of vulnerabilities.
In reality the hostile environment policy is punishing people across an intersection of vulnerabilities.
That hostile environment
Being tough on immigration masks government incompetence, poor leadership, and disregard not only for immigrants, but also for the rest of society. Its implementation ushers damaging and divisive racial profiling practices into our daily lives, for those on the receiving end of it and for those expected to perform the checks. Doctors, teachers, school nurses, and social workers did not sign up for this when they chose their honorable caring professions, and neither did landlords, bank staff or employers.
How can we fix this in an unequal world, exhausted by traumas of war, natural disasters, and the rise of right-wing populism, while we are impoverished by recession and fearful about the future?
The solution is not just in actions of resistance to the ‘hostile environment’ or support for vulnerable people, but what needs to change structurally.
In addition to anger over the inhumanity and injustice of the impact of hostilities, we need to accept that migrants are here, that no government measure will close the borders completely or manage to deport them all, and that our government cannot cope with the demands of exiting the European Union. We need to accept that the Home Office immigration service, re-branded so many times in recent years, is still not fit for purpose.
If we accept the reality of the situation, the only right, pragmatic, humane, fair and positive step for any government to take, is amnesty, or regularisation of immigration status.
This restart button has been used before in many different countries, and by governments across the political spectrum – from Spain to Italy, from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama. Those who have had the courage to regularise their undocumented have all seen positive results.
In 1986 Ronald Reagan delivered amnesty for 3 million people in the US so that they can all pay taxes, and in 2005 the Spanish socialist government granted amnesty to 700,000 immigrants as a way to improve integration and deal with unscrupulous employers.
In Britain, civil society spoke up for amnesty in 2007, when the Strangers Into Citizens campaign was launched and was supported by politicians across the spectrum, including Boris Johnson. He first called for amnesty when he was the Mayor of London and did so again more recently when he became the Foreign Secretary.
What would happen in Britain now, if there was an amnesty?
Firstly we would finally find out how many undocumented as well as underdocumented people are here. As they are already here and are surviving, mostly being exploited in the shadow economy, in one stroke of amnesty the government would deal with employers who are breaking the law and would collect a huge amount in taxes.
Huge amounts of money wasted on enforcement and detention would be saved. The amnesty would also deal with the backlog of asylum applications, and would help finally restore functioning to the immigration system.
EU citizens and their families would be able to live their lives free from fear and anxiety.
There would of course be the cost to employers who would now have to pay the Living Wage to people they exploited, but that would also deal with the perception of ‘immigrants taking jobs from British workers’ and would in some industries lift an entire workforce as well as their families out of poverty.
Women especially would benefit from increased protection from domestic violence and sexual exploitation. Domestic workers would be able to leave their abusive employers without losing their right to work. Children, sometimes born in the UK, would be able to access further education and live without the shame of being labeled ‘illegal’.
Doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, police officers, landlords and bank staff could get on with their jobs instead of being forced to racially profile people they ought to serve and protect. Immigration officers could be deployed to cut the queues for all the tourists we want to welcome, instead of persecuting a grandmother who lived in the UK for 50 years. We would be able to welcome refugees and proudly provide protection for them in a dignified manner.
As a free, democratic, and sane society, we need to think about fair, workable, logical, and pragmatic ways out of the situation we are in. Regularisation of undocumented people as well as those stuck in the system is the first step on the road back to that common sense.
If we could find the courage to deliver the amnesty, the world would not be perfect, but our country would be less divided and we could focus our resources and energies on repairing the damage that fear and hate have caused us.
Finally, politicians would have to focus on real solutions for real problems. There would no longer be that mythical ‘other’ to blame – we would all be just ‘us’, in it together.
By Zrinka Bralo, Migrants Organise CEO. Originally published on Open Democracy