The Government’s Immigration Bill, slipped out under the cover of the Christmas holiday, will catch EEA nationals and their families in the same hostile net that has trapped migrants from the rest of the world over recent years. Not content with watching the Home Office strip Windrush citizens – as well as an unknowable number of undocumented people – of their livelihoods, homes, and rights the Government has decided to place the fate of a further three million people in the department’s merciless hands.
This should have been an opportunity to put right the wrongs of Windrush, and end the hostile environment, reinstate immigration legal aid and data protection rights, and dramatically reduce the number of people in immigration detention. Instead, the proposed law is basically a blank cheque made out by Government to the Home Office, with “trust us” scrawled on the back.
First, it provides the legislative basis for the end of freedom of movement. And second, as is the hallmark of so much vexed Brexit legislation, it includes sweeping powers that will allow Government ministers to bypass Parliament by rewriting immigration legislation with barely any scrutiny.
If it makes it onto the statute books, Home Office ministers will amass yet more unaccountable power over the lives of people subject to immigration control. What could possibly go wrong?
The White Paper is the only indication we have of the likely trajectory of the future immigration system. Like so many pronouncements on our post-Brexit future, reading it is like reading tea leaves. But what can be discerned is cause for serious concern.
Workers who want to come to the UK may have to earn at least £30,000 per year, with their immigration status contingent on their earnings. They will be forced to choose between asserting their labour rights and risking the job that guarantees their right to be in the UK, or choosing not to rock the boat and putting up with abusive employers. A new temporary visa scheme for low-skilled (read: low-paid) workers, which includes no path to settlement, will likely increase the number of people in the UK without papers, leaving them vulnerable to labour exploitation, trafficking, modern slavery and exclusion from basic goods and services. The only result can be more segregated workforces and communities than ever.
And of course, the hostile environment is going nowhere. The Government has been trying and failing to rebrand this sprawling web of internal border controls since at least 2017. But behind the shiny new rhetoric of compliance and fairness lurk the same old cruelties: migrants charged extortionate amounts for accessing vital medical care; victims and witnesses of crime unable to report to the police; undocumented children afraid to attend school; and thousands of people locked up in immigration detention every year – all underpinned by an increasingly sophisticated machinery of data mining and matching which, introduced under the guise of immigration control, will ultimately subject us all to a database state.
While the fate of millions of people hangs in the balance, it’s only Labour Party vacillation that has seen this Bill generate any public debate at all. The Corbyn leadership has campaigned in solidarity with migrants for decades, the refrain goes, so of course they should oppose this Bill – something that, for a few hours on Monday night, it appeared they weren’t going to do. But this is a Labour Party that has a current policy platform to maintain almost all detention centres, to make the ability of migrants to access essential services subject to the whim of public consultation, to exclude foreign spouses of British citizens from state support, and which has, of course, passed anti-migrant legislation for decades at more or less the same rate as the Conservatives.
Fracturing the political consensus on anti-migrant hostility means learning some difficult lessons. The first is that the Windrush scandal was not the beginning of state-sponsored inhumanity in the name of immigration control. The second is that without principled and uncompromising extra-parliamentary pressure, no one party will end it.
So MPs must vote down the Immigration Bill – but this isn’t just down to MPs. Get out on the picket lines with striking migrant workers. Come and show your solidarity with the Stansted 15 when they are sentenced on 6th February for a peaceful protest that stopped a mass deportation flight. Visit people incarcerated in Britain’s immigration detention centres. Work with your local community to build resilience to immigration raids. And crucially, build solidarity with people facing state hostility in all its forms. People at the sharp end of the hostile environment, and those subject to oppressive counter-terror and gangs policing have far more in common than divides them.
A society in which dignity, equality and justice have substantive meaning will not be gifted to us by those in the corridors of power. We will have to build it ourselves.
Gracie Bradley Policy and Campaigns Officer for Liberty.