The issue of immigration along with that of homelessness have been my particular social justice / poverty passions in recent years. The main reason for focusing more on homelessness is that I find myself coming more in contact with homeless folk and less with destitute asylum seekers, and have been able to do more to practically make a difference by working at the coal face. I have, nevertheless, followed the various debates around immigration with interest, as my recent blog postings (here and here) and other writings show. I am also pleased to support individuals and initiatives, like those of my friends in CAST, to help those who suffer as a result of their status.
I have noted the emphasis as far as public perception and political pronouncement goes is whether or not and to what extent should we allow immigration to the UK and for who, and what type of support should we give, realising letting in the brightest and best, whose overall contribution to British life may be a positive thing, but is somewhat negated because of UK membership of the European Union and our having to accept whoever the rules says if we are to remain a member. Often the issues of immigrants in distress, needs of asylum seekers or the fairly innocuous one of helping foreigners to integrate within British society are overlooked in these debates.
So let me declare an interest – some years ago I investigated extensively the missing communities of Southend and produced a report. To an extent what I found then, and believe may still be the case, was a microcosm of some of the missing communities throughout the land. By missing community I meant those sections of society that seem not to be fully engaging with the community at large and who were somehow disempowered. This reawakened some of my earlier interests in the poor and marginalised within society. One such “community” were the asylum seekers, coming from many countries in the world but, as far as Southend was concerned, was particularly true from among those who were of Zimbabwean origin.
While I have since come to see the distinctions between economic migrant and asylum seeker are not always as clear cut as I once thought (and therein often lies the problem) it became evident to me that such folk often experienced distress, partly as a result of not being able to work legally or not being qualified to receive benefits. The problem was compounded, in my view, by the shabby treatment by government, irrespective of which party was in power. Because of the intolerable limbo some found themselves, many went underground and dropped under visible radar altogether. No one knew the true number, but it was reckoned to be in the hundreds of thousands. While measures have more recently since been put in place to stop such folk getting into the country in the first place, a sizable number of illegal immigrants still exist.
When I caught the feature on illegal immigration in the USA on a recent Radio 4 Today programme, my ears pricked. According to Wikipedia, there could be anything between 7 and 30 million illegal immigrants living in the USA, the great majority from Mexico and other Latin American countries. Moreover, the present Obama administration has spent huge amounts of money on implementing immigration enforcement policies and it seems with limited success. The feature reported that same administration now providing an amnesty for some of those illegal immigrants, in particular those who had been in the country a long time. This was against a backdrop of opposition to these moves by the President’s political opponents. Unsurprisingly, some of those we might expect to benefit from the amnesty were reluctant to take up the offer in case it might be reversed with a change of administration with them having exposed themselves by admitting they were in the country illegally.
Listening as I did for 5-10 minutes hardly qualifies me to come to a firm view on the matter, for we need first to dig deep on the facts, but it did get me thinking about some of the issues. The first one was the plight of those living in the country illegally, a situation I would regard as nigh intolerable, not just because of the fear of being found out and punished but because of the potential of exploitation and inability to live peacefully with such a threat hanging over you. I can well imagine those opposed to the amnesty doing so on the grounds this might be encouraging people to break the law and thus creating a dangerous precedent. It seems to me this needs to be weighed against the desirability of trying to regularise the situation and bringing hope to those who are trapped in a quandary in which they would rather live illegally in the USA than decide to return to a worse situation which they had sought to escape from.
I am not a particular fan of President Obama or his administration, but in this case I feel he may have got it right. Which brings me back to the UK situation. What do we do about the plight of our own illegal immigrants? While I do not want to condone breaking the law, especially when it looks like a slap in the face for those who obey the law, who might rightly feel aggrieved, I do believe creating an amnesty for long term illegal immigrants or those who for various reasons have not had their immigration status regularised, to be right. I do so because of the distress many are experiencing, like not being able to work or claim benefits and being subject to destitution, abuse and exploitation, with returning to their country of origin often not a viable option. Moreover, many of the situations we are seeing are as a result of bad decisions in the past and it is about time to wipe the slate clean and act rightly in the future.