Reforming the immigration system

Migrants are part of our communities – we all need the right to build secure lives here, argues Zoe Gardner

This week, the community in Pollokshields in Glasgow took to the streets in their thousands to prevent two of their neighbours being taken away by immigration enforcement. The huge – and ultimately successful – show of community solidarity will have made for uncomfortable watching for our Government, which claims that everyone supports its hardline treatment of refugees and migrants.

It looks like what many of us actually crave are strong communities, in which we can all get by and thrive, regardless of what stamp we’ve got in our passport. Research by JCWI shows that most undocumented people are in fact long-term residents who have built homes and families here, and are deeply embedded in their communities. Contrary to what the Government would have us believe, most undocumented people didn’t arrive by small boat, but came here on a visa to work, study, visit family or seek protection.

People then lose their status because our immigration system classifies them as “temporary” for absurdly long periods of time. Many migrants must wait at least ten years before they are eligible for Indefinite Leave to Remain. Over the course of a decade, they must re-apply every 30 months at a cost of thousands of pounds each time, just for the right to stay in their homes and jobs.

During this time, if they go through a crisis, make a simple mistake on an application form, get badly advised by a lawyer or simply cannot afford another round of extortionate application fees, they lose their status and become undocumented. When this happens there is no flexibility and very little way of getting back on track. Once undocumented, migrants become subject to the Hostile Environment, a set of policies designed to put border checks at every turn in our communities.

So people who have come here to make the UK their home are excluded from safe work and housing if they slip up once during their decade-long path to settlement. And who benefits? Nobody – apart from exploitative landlords and bosses, that is. The Hostile Environment is a gift for these people. They can underpay and abuse undocumented people with impunity, knowing that they’ll always have the upper hand.

But no matter how hostile the environment, for many people losing status doesn’t mean that the UK stops being their home. Undocumented people have lived in our communities for years – many have families here. Instead of leaving loved ones behind, they are forced to live in limbo with no way out.

With a system so complex, it’s no surprise that so many people fall out of status – the UK is thought to be home to the largest undocumented population in Europe. Many have lived here since they were children – a significant proportion were even born here. It makes no sense to trap them in the shadows.

That’s why JCWI is proposing a set of simple, workable reforms to our immigration system. No child born in this country should ever be treated as a “temporary” migrant and face removal. We must reinstate birthright citizenship – if you’ve never known any country other than Britain, you should automatically be British. And instead of having to jump through hoops and spend thousands of pounds over a decade, we need a 5-year, affordable path to settlement. Finally, people who have lost their status need realistic and accessible ways to get back on track – we need a new route to regularisation for those who fall through the cracks.

What happened in Glasgow shows what we can achieve when we are united. I believe that same spirit is within all of us – and that despite so many years of demonisation and division, we can work together to build strong communities. Making sure that people who have lived here for years – and sometimes their whole lives – can access stable status and basic services is a crucial first step. Together, we can show solidarity and take action to support our migrant neighbours. Because when everyone has the right to live and work in safety, we all benefit.  

Zoe Gardner is Policy Adviser at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. She is a researcher and grassroots campaigner on migrants’ rights in the UK and across Europe. She previously worked in communications and policy roles at Asylum Aid, the Race Equality Foundation and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles in Brussels.

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