Battle in Print: Out of the shadows: why we need an amnesty for immigrants

Austen Ivereigh and Raymond Perrier

A month after a rain-drenched rally of 15,000 in Trafalgar Square on 7 May 2007, the Strangers into Citizens campaign ‘is growing faster than its sponsors dared hope’, according to the Observer (Cohen 3.6.2007). The call for a path to citizenship for long-term refused asylum-seekers and visa overstayers - ‘illegal immigrants’ - became, briefly, central to the Labour Party’s deputy leadership election, with three out of the six candidates declaring themselves in favour of the idea: one of them was the winner, Harriet Harman, who is married to Jack Dromey of the TGWU, the campaign’s leading union advocate. More than 90 MPs from all parties have signed an early-day motion in favour; and in September, following a meeting earlier in the year with the campaigners, the Liberal-Democrats voted for a proposal very similar to Strangers into Citizens’ - a ‘path to citizenship’ through a two-year work-permit scheme for people who have been in the country for 10 years or more. A counter-motion, defeated but noted by the Conference, proposed instead that the condition be, as Strangers into Citizens suggests, four years. The Independent (25.4.2007) has backed the campaign in an editorial, as have Madeleine Bunting (18.12.2006) and Polly Toynbee (4.5.2007) in the Guardian, while favourable articles have been published in the Spectator (Ivereigh 17.3.2007) and the Daily Telegraph (Johnston 25.6.2007) adding their support to that of the black newspaper The Voice and much of the religious press (eg. Ivereigh 28.4.2007 and editorial in same issue).

Pretty good going, if I can allow myself and my team a brief moment of self-congratulation, for a campaign which started out of a small office in the East End of London back in November 2006. We could count then on the support of London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, and the moral authority of the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, my old boss, who had first made the call for what is known technically as ‘regularisation’ at a packed (and immensely moving) Mass for Migrant Workers in May last year. The Mass was repeated this year on 7 May, followed this time with a rally of thousands of Union Jack-waving supporters Trafalgar Square who heard calls by faith leaders, trade unionists, politicians and celebrities for Britain to wake up to the truth about a new sub-class of Briton which is increasingly a source of national shame.

It was helping the Cardinal to prepare for the first event that I realised the strength of the Catholic Church’s call for the rights of illegal immigrants to be respected. In the United States, which has 11 million such people, the Church urges their regularisation as a moral duty. When people have put down roots in a country, and the nation benefits from their labour, society’s obligations to them mirror those we owe to those who are citizens by birthright.

The Strangers into Citizens campaign is led by the Citizen Organising Foundation, better known as London Citizens, the alliance of faith and community groups which brought you the Living Wage for London. It arose from two immediate, pressing concerns: one the one hand, the vulnerability of illegal immigrants to exploitation (often by their own compatriots) in Britain’s fast-expanding shadow economy; on the other, the destitution of asylum seekers and refugees, who have been made to wait six, seven, eight years while their claims are being processed, only to find themselves - by which time they have put down roots in the UK - refused leave to remain. One of the controversial elements of the campaign was the blurring of the categories of ‘economic migrant’ and ‘asylum seeker; surely, argued refugee rights groups, asylum seekers fleeing persecution had or should have a unique (morally superior?) status? To which we replied: but a visa overstayer and a refused refugee are both in the same position in modern Britain - unrecognised by the state, forming a new Dickensian sub-class, forced to choose between exploitation and forged IDs, with the threat of deportation hanging over them while they desperately seek to maintain their impoverished families. It is right, of course, to support asylum seekers in renewing their claims and contesting the Home Office’s politically-driven policies of refusing 95 per cent of them. But the argument for a more generous asylum policy, one that befits the Geneva Convention of 1952, has largely been lost: the new policy turns an asylum seeker into an illegal immigrant in a matter of weeks.

We spoke to hundreds of ‘shadow people’, and posted many of their stories - after changing their names - on our website, If what they have in common is a dehumanising, sub-criminal limbo, theirs are not always stories of poverty. Guillermo, a 25-year-old Latin-American who works as a deputy manager in a restaurant chain, uses a fake Spanish passport he bought a few years back. He flew in on a visa, and in the past six years has been doing well. After a year or two cleaning, he learned his skills in a coffee chain, from where he was promoted to his current job. He is intelligent, hardworking, taxpaying, ambitious; 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 report by Price Waterhouse Coopers, 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 by the Government and our less temperate press. ‘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’, the then home secretary, John Reid, told the BBC. Excuse me, Mr Reid: Guillermo pays £350 a month in taxes, but cannot register with a GP; he certainly cannot access benefits, and 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, some say: he can 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 to the pie more than he takes while enabling the rest of us to continue to enjoy our slice.

Then there are the 220,000-odd refused asylum seekers. The current policy - which takes traumatised people and traumatises them more pour encourager les autres - mean that many of them have been in limbo since the 1980s and 1990s. They are part of local networks of new friends and church congregations. Although educated and able, ‘integrated’ into British society, and 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 statistic 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 they 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 the inhuman treatment of decent people cast into limbo, skin-headed youths roam housing estates picking on scapegoats, the BNP grows, and the Government appease tabloids with unfunny impersonations of Alf Garnett.

But everyone avoids the brutal truth. The immigration minister, Liam Byrne, earlier this year 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 (even with the Home Office’s conservative estimate of their numbers at 500,000), and (at £11,000 per deportation) cost billions of pounds - all assuming, of course, no-one else applies for asylum or overstays their visa between now and 2042.

Many British newspapers are committed to deportation in principle, imagining that it is the scroungers depicted by the tabloids who are being handcuffed onto 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 likely 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 famous restaurant chain told me earlier this year 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’. 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 take 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 - whether legally from Eastern Europe or ‘illegally’ from elsewhere. What makes it harder for irregular migrants is that they often remain trapped in exploitation, because their status prevents them working their way out of it: the basic right of every worker to change their employer is often not available to people without papers. So many of them turn to false papers, criminalising themselves in the process. Lena, a highly articulate Russian 23-year-old who contacted us while 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 up 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 in a world of poverty 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: the best example is Spain, which in 2005 naturalised 700,000 people through an employer-sponsored scheme. The result was a tax bonanza for the Exchequer (Spain cleared its social security deficit within a year), happy migrants and happy employers (who do not have to compete with unscrupulous competitors who pay less than the minimum wage), and a more cohesive society. Did it weaken the borders, sending a green light to the great unwashed that all they need do is come to Spain to become a European? Not according to the experts, one of whom told the BBC on 7 May that illegal immigration had actually decreased since the regularisation.

If this seems counter-intuitive, consider migrants’ stories. Few people (as a percentage of the population of poor countries) have either the skills or the means to migrate; if they do, they usually only go where there is the chance of a new life, with all the risks that entails. Those who make it put down roots; they become de facto citizens.

There are strong and interesting arguments for abolishing border controls altogether, but that is not what Strangers into Citizens advocates. As well as a political non-starter, the no borders position ignores the fear of many people that immigration weakens social cohesion. As long as nation-states exist, there will be borders. The UK’s political parties - including the Lib Dems - believe in tightening controls, so that the state knows better who is coming and who is leaving. That is a reasonable response to globalisation: the state needs to extend greater control. We do not argue with this.

But it is a big mistake to apply this enforcement strategy without recognising current realities, without recognising the place in our society of more than half a million people de facto Brits through a one-off ‘amnesty’. The government believe that its new ‘chilling’ measures - biometric ID cards for non-EU people, crackdowns on illegal employment with fines for employers, fingerprint checks and the like - will reduce the size of the ‘illegal’ population by persuading them to ‘go home’. But most won’t go home. They have made new lives in the UK. If it is harder for them to work, they will simply go underground, further expanding the informal economy which will in turn give succour to the people-traffickers, the gangmasters, the criminals and the terrorists.

That is why Polly Toynbee describes the current immigration policy as phoney: it bangs a drum (‘getting tough on illegal immigration’) while never admitting that a strategy of deporting irregular migrants is fantasy. ‘All these categories of people are destined to half starve in a twilight world, officially banned from working - and banned from paying tax’, she writes. ‘They can’t sign up with GPs. If pregnant, they get no antenatal care, only an A&E emergency delivery, and then no nursery or school for lost children born in Britain. In the black economy, illegals take whatever dangerous and sub-minimum wage work they can get, paying extortionate rent for a piece of floor to sleep on. All this is deliberate, official policy to force them to go home. Except they can’t, won’t and don’t go. That’s what makes the policy phoney’.

The Strangers into Citizens campaign proposes a policy that is realistic, pragmatic, and humanitarian - not words which anyone would apply to Britain’s current policy. We suggest that alongside enforcement the government allow those who have been in the UK for at least four years to work legally (but without benefits) for two years, at the end of which, subject to certain criteria (employer and character references, proficiency in English, and - alright, 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 £1bn, 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.

Austen Ivereigh is a Catholic writer, commentator and campaigner. Raymond Perrier is co-ordinator of the Strangers into Citizens campaign.

For a summary of the campaign, with links to articles and news reports mentioned here, search for the ‘Strangers into Citizens’ page at To contact the campaign, see or email Raymond Perrier on .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)


Bunting, M. (18.12.2006). ‘A modern-day slavery is flourishing, and we just avert our eyes’. Guardian.

Cohen, N. (3.6.2007). ‘Let Britain’s secret migrant societies emerge into the light’. Observer.

Ekklesia. (19.9.2007). Lib Dems follow church calls for migrant amnesty. Ekklesia.

Independent (25.4.2007). ‘A sensible proposal to break this vicious circle’. Independent.

Ivereigh, A. (17.3.2007). ‘Let’s sort out the immigration mess’. Spectator.

Ivereigh, A. (28.4.2007). ‘Plight of the shadow people’. The Tablet.

Johnston, P. (25.6.2007). ‘The Immigration horse has bolted’. Daily Telegraph.

Murphy-O’Connor, C. (29.4.2006). ‘Church of many colours’. The Tablet.

Toynbee, P. (4.5.2007). ‘Phoney policies only backfire. We need an amnesty for illegal immigrants’. Guardian.

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