Immigration Bill: scapegoating and creating subordinate workers

Submitted by AWL on 29 April, 2014 - 6:02

The Tories Immigration Bill will receive its third and final reading in the House of Lords on 6 May.

The bill panders to many of the worst myths and prejudices about migrants — myths and prejudices whipped up by the Tories themselves, by successive Labour governments before them, and by the right-wing press.

According to the Home Office website: “It is too easy for people to live and work in the UK illegally and take advantage of our public services. The appeals system is like a never-ending game of snakes and ladders. The winners are foreign criminals and immigration lawyers.”

According to Tory former Immigration Minister Mark Harper, the bill will end this supposed state of affairs: “It will stop migrants abusing public services to which they are not entitled, reduce the pull factors which draw illegal immigrants to the UK and make it easier to remove people who should not be here.”

And according to the Tory Home Secretary Theresa May, the bill “will create a really hostile environment for illegal migrants.” In fact, the bill will create “a really hostile environment” for many more people than just “illegal migrants”.

Pandering to the myth that declining standards in the NHS are the result of too many foreigners abusing the system — rather than the result of cuts and New Labour’s outsourcing to the private sector — the bill introduces an “immigration health charge”.

The charge — £200 for each year of permission to be in the UK — is to be paid by anyone applying to enter the UK, or applying to extend their stay here. By definition, it will be paid only by legal migrants — but not by the Tory bogeyman of “illegal migrants”.

The charge is directly discriminatory. The NHS is paid for out of general taxation. Like anyone else, foreign workers pay taxes, such as income tax and VAT. But only foreign workers will have to pay an extra “health charge”.

Rich migrants will be able to afford the additional £200 a year. But poorer migrants will not. It would mean that the cost for a spouse to join someone already settled in the UK, for example, would rise from £850 to over £1,350.

In any case, migrant labour is generally younger and therefore in better health than the UK population overall. (On average, more than a quarter of all healthcare consumed in someone’s lifetime will be administered in the last year of their life.) Migrants are therefore less of a “burden” on the NHS than the indigenous UK population.

And, of course, the Tories have not given any commitment that money raised from the “immigration health charge” will actually be spent on the NHS.

Pandering to the myth that the shortage of affordable accommodation is the result of too many foreigners snapping it up — rather than the result of the slump in council house building and government cuts for social housing in general — the bill aims to make private landlords auxiliary immigration officers.

Private landlords face a fine of up to £3,000 per tenant if they fail to check immigration documentation and let out their property to anyone without permission to be in the UK. Landlords will also be fined if they fail to check the immigration documentation of anyone sharing the accommodation with their tenant.

Like much else in the bill, the new duty imposed on private landlords is unworkable (as well being wrong in principle).

Over 400 different forms of identity document are in use in the European Union. (To complicate matters even more, most of them, unsurprisingly, are not in English!) The UK Visas and Immigration guidance for employers who have to carry out similar checks runs to 89 pages. Its list of acceptable documentation runs to 23 pages.

Few, if any, of the UK’s private landlords — 71% of the UK’s four-million-plus private lettings are owned by individual private landlords — are going to wade through great tomes of guidance.

Far easier to discriminate: to avoid the risk of a fine by not letting properties to anyone who “looks” or “sounds” a bit foreign.

In any case, while it is true that migrants are far more likely to live in the private rented sector than in social housing, recent research by the Housing and Migration Network found migrants to be the victims of poor housing rather than the cause of it:

“Recent migrants frequently live in poorer properties… New migrants often enter the market through the least desirable accommodation, often in disadvantaged areas or where demand for housing is lowest, filling voids created by people who have moved on to better conditions.”

“There are widespread reports of poor and exploitative housing conditions experienced by many migrant workers. Overcrowded or unsuitable private lettings include the use of attics, shipping containers and garden sheds as accommodation.”

Other agencies to be transformed into auxiliary immigration officers also include banks and building societies (to carry out immigration status checks on new applicants for current accounts) and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (to do likewise on new applicants for a driving license).

But banks, building societies and the DVLA already carry out identity and documentation checks on new applicants. The government has provided no evidence to suggest that existing checks are inadequate, and no guidance about how the new checks are to be carried out.

The only purpose served by the new checks is to reinforce the illusion that the UK is a “soft touch” for “illegal migrants” and that the government is taking action to “reduce the pull factors which draw illegal immigrants to the UK.”

(Even if it is not clear why the possibility of obtaining a driving licence from the DVLA counts as a “pull factor”.)

The most likely result of the new checks will be racial discrimination, with anyone who “looks” or “sounds” foreign being subject to a greater degree of scrutiny than indigenous white UK nationals.

Pandering to the myth that the only beneficiaries of immigration appeals are “foreign criminals and lawyers” — rather than acknowledging that the high level of successful appeals (between 40% and 50%) reflects the poor quality of initial decision-making by UK Visas and Immigration — the bill radically curtails appeal rights.

All but four of the seventeen grounds on which a decision to remove someone from the UK can be challenged are being scrapped and replaced by an “administrative review system”, in which decisions taken by UK Visas and Immigration will be reviewed by … UK Visas and Immigration.

The four remaining grounds of appeal are ones which the UK government must leave in place either by virtue of international conventions (such as on human rights and refugee rights) or by virtue of its obligations as a member state of the European Union.

But even the right to appeal on human rights grounds is curtailed by the bill.

Ever since Theresa May falsely claimed at the 2011 Tory Party conference that an “illegal immigrant” had been allowed to remain in the UK because he had a cat and his removal would therefore breach his right to family life (guaranteed under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights), Article 8 has been a bogeyman for the Tories.

The new bill lays down criteria against which appeals based on Article 8 rights should be judged (and, thereby, less likely to be successful).

“Little weight” should be attached to any private or family life established by someone at a time when their immigration status was “precarious” or unlawful. Anyone who is not financially independent and/or cannot speak English should be more liable to removal. And the maintenance of effective immigration controls is defined as “in the public interest”.

Even where removal or deportation decisions remain subject to appeal rather than “administrative review”, the bill will result in a greater number of those appeals being heard after the person’s removal from the UK, with a consequent reduced chance of success.

Where a claim to stay in the UK on the grounds that removal would breach a person’s human rights is “certified” by UK Visas and Immigration as “clearly unfounded”, then any appeal against that decision must be lodged and heard after the person’s removal from the UK.

Similarly, any non-British national who is subject to a deportation order after completion of a prison sentence will be able to appeal against that decision only after removal from the UK. (The only exception to this is if the person would face “a real risk of serious irreversible harm” if deported.)

Success rates in anti-deportation appeals — currently running at around 30% — will slump as a result of this change. Appealing from abroad makes it more difficult to gather evidence, obtain appropriate legal representation, and respond to evidence presented in court by the Home Secretary.

The sweeping abolition of appeal rights contained in the bill will be further exacerbated by staffing cuts in UK Visas and Immigration (a cut of 22% between 2010 and 2015), which will result in even lower-quality decision-making, and by cuts in legal aid for challenging removal decisions, which will result in more migrants being denied legal representation.

Despite the UK already detaining more immigration offenders for longer periods of time than any other country in Europe, the bill places even more obstacles in the way of immigration detainees being granted bail.

A detainee is not to be released on bail without the permission of the Home Secretary if removal directions have already been set for fourteen days or less after the date of release. And at least 28 days must elapse before a new bail application can be lodged following an unsuccessful one.

Such measures amount to an attack on the independence of the judiciary (which, despite its class background, is seen by Tory traditionalists as far too liberal in matters of immigration and detention).

When deciding whether or not to grant bail a judge will, in any case, take account of the future proximity of removal and the past proximity of an earlier bail application. This discretion is effectively overridden by the restrictions imposed by the bill.

Other provisions of the bill consist of a variety of miscellaneous measures geared to make life even more unpleasant for migrants and would-be migrants.

There are increased powers for immigration and police officers to search individuals and premises. The state’s powers to record, use and retain biometric information are enlarged. And naturalised British citizens can be deprived of their citizenship if they have acted in a manner “seriously prejudicial” to vital UK interests.

The Immigration Bill — which, to its shame, the Parliamentary Labour Party decided not to oppose — is the latest in a succession of similar pieces of legislation. On average, since 1997 legislation about asylum and/or immigration has been passed every two years.

To one degree or another, all such legislation has covered the same ground: making it more difficult, and more expensive, for migrants to enter the UK; making life more difficult for them while in the UK; and making it easier to remove them from the UK.

But such an approach has not been applied to all migrants. Rich ones are still welcome, with plans under consideration to “auction” the right to reside in Britain to the highest bidders, and to give the right to remain to those wealthy enough to donate seven-figure sums to hospital and university endowments.

UK Visas and Immigration has also set up the invitation-only “Great Club” (sic), membership of which is restricted to “top business executives and global business leaders”. Members of the Great Club are allocated their personal “account manager”, who provides them with “a bespoke visa service, tailored to each individual’s needs.”

And in contrast to scare stories about the UK being overwhelmed by immigration from Bulgaria and Romania, the Tories have promised to open up the UK to immigration from China. On a visit to the country last year George Osborne declared:

“Let me make this clear to you and to the whole of China, there is no limit to the number of Chinese who can study in Britain. There is no limit to the number of Chinese tourists who can visit. No limit on the amount of business we can do together.”

(The total population of Bulgaria and Romania is 29 millions. The population of China, the most populous country in the world, is 1,384 millions.)

In any case, media and Tory claims about migrants and/or illegal migrants abusing public services to which they are (supposedly) not entitled and about supposed “pull factors” attracting migrants to the UK do not stand up to scrutiny.

Between 2001 and 2011 migrants made a net contribution to UK public finances of £25 billion. UK welfare benefits — supposedly a “pull factor” — are amongst the lowest in Europe. EU-migrants are 60% less likely to claim benefits than British nationals. The UK is the only EU country in which unemployment amongst migrants is lower than among indigenous nationals.

According to figures produced by the Department of Work and Pensions itself, in 2013, 6.7% of non-UK nationals were claiming a working-age benefit, compared with 16.4% of working-age UK nationals.

Migrant labour frequently meets skills shortages. 36.8% of GPs and 40.4% of other health specialists gained their qualifications outside the UK. Migrants are more likely to have degree-level education: in 2011, 21% of UK adults, 32% of EU migrants and 43% of non-EU migrants had a university degree.

The Immigration Bill, like its predecessors, is designed to meet a problem that does not exist: “too much” immigration, “abuses” of public services by migrants, “benefits tourism” and “health tourism”.

The driving force behind the Immigration Bill and its predecessors is to be found elsewhere.

On the one hand, such legislation scapegoats migrants for social problems such as poor-quality housing, inadequate NHS care, low wages and high unemployment. These are certainly real problems. But they are not caused by migrants. In fact, migrants themselves are more likely to be found in low-paid jobs and poor-quality housing.

Such problems are the result of the policies of successive Tory and Labour governments. The solution to such problems is not to witch-hunt migrants but to challenge and reverse government policies.

On the other hand, the impact of such legislation is arguably to create a regulated and controlleded labour force which corresponds to the demands of the modern globalised and deregulated labour market.

Migrant labour is, by definition, mobile and precarious. Just as modern capital moves across borders in search of profit-maximisation, so too migrant labour crosses the same borders in search of a buyer for its labour power.

Its right to reside in any given place is largely dependent on its ability to find a buyer for that labour power. And its social overheads are lower. While working, it “puts more into” the economy than it “takes out”. If it loses its employment, then it is more likely to look for work elsewhere than claim welfare benefits.

The permanently transient nature of its employment makes it less likely to be organised in trade unions. Its scapegoating for social problems exposes it to isolation from the indigenous labour force. And legislation such as the Immigration Bill denies it even the limited rights enjoyed by the latter.

In that sense, migrant labour is not a “supplement” which fills in the gaps in the indigenous labour force but a specific form of labour fashioned by the demands of contemporary capitalism. It is what capitalism wants the working class as a whole to be: entirely subordinate and vulnerable to the dictates of capital.

This underlines the fact that recruiting and organising migrant labour into the trade union movement is not “just” a matter of solidarity but also part of the struggle to defend the rights of all workers against capitalist encroachment.

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