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November 11, 2019   7 mins

The Spectator magazine has reminded Boris Johnson that he has long been a supporter of an amnesty for illegal immigrants and urged him to include a commitment to one in the 2019 Tory manifesto “as a bold expression of the Prime Minister’s personal brand of liberal Conservatism”.

But while there is a case to be made for an amnesty, it certainly shouldn’t be a general one — definitely not in the wake of a Windrush scandal that has, for now, partly paralysed Britain’s internal protections against illegal immigration.

There are many different kinds of illegal immigrant among the estimated one million (well, anything between 500,000 and 1.5m) currently in the country. There are people who came in with a false identity card or passport and live in the mainstream (working, paying  tax, using public services); people who came in legally but have out-stayed their visa, they too may be living in the mainstream undetected by the authorities; there are failed asylum seekers, who can then be subdivided into those known to the authorities (about 80,000) and those who have gone off the radar; and finally those who entered clandestinely on a lorry or boat and remain undetected. The latter often survive in a twilight world in parts of inner-city Britain where exploitation and modern slavery flourishes.

There are also many different kinds of amnesty. There is a general one, intended to encourage everyone here without status to come forward; or there are those defined by category, such as failed asylum-seeking families with young children that are hard to return; and there are those defined by length of time in the country, such as anyone who has been here more than 10 years, who does not have a criminal record.

The Spectator is not clear about what kind of amnesty it wants — although it seems to want something short of a general one. It says: “A common sense line can be drawn between those who have lived here for several years, and those who have not put down roots, who can be removed in a way that deters illegal immigration.” In principle, this is not a stupid idea because the reality is that many illegal immigrants are never going to leave. It is, in an era of human rights law, very hard to remove them, especially those who have been here for a few years and can claim protection under the right to family life. Back in 2004 (under Labour), there were 21,435 forced removals; but in the year to June 2019, that had fallen to below 3,000 (excluding the 5,203 Foreign National Offenders).

Given these circumstances, there are two ways to reduce the stock of illegal immigrants — some form of limited and controlled amnesty for the hardest to remove groups or a so-called hostile environment that makes life so difficult for illegal immigrants that they choose to self-deport.

The sensible option is a combination of the two. Labour initiated a more rigorous system of status checking (and first used the term hostile environment) towards the end of its period in office but Theresa May as Home Secretary after 2010 gave it more teeth. This means that, in the absence of ID cards, the favoured status-checking system in continental Europe, people who have recently moved to the UK have to prove their status for jobs, renting flats, opening bank accounts, using the NHS and so on — with big fines for employers and landlords who are caught employing or renting to illegal immigrants.

For a while it looked as if the hostile environment might be working, as the number of voluntary returns climbed steeply from below 4,000 in 2004 to a peak of nearly 29,000 in 2016 (though better data collection may also have been a factor behind the rise). Partly as a consequence of last year’s Windrush scandal, both enforced and voluntary returns are now falling sharply, enforced returns are just over 8,000 a year (but most of these are Foreign National Offenders who are removed direct from prison) and voluntary returns have fallen to just over 13,000.

Why is the Windrush scandal casting such a shadow? A quick reminder of what happened. More than 1m people came to live in Britain between the late 1940s and the early 1970s in the great post-colonial migration, almost all of whom were granted Indefinite Leave to Remain in 1971. In some cases, they did not acquire the documents to prove it, and in particular the poorer people in this group never acquired a British passport because they could not afford foreign holidays. For several decades this did not matter until, especially after 2010, the UK changed tack from the relative openness of the Labour years to a much more controlled border and a more concerted attempt to tackle illegal immigration.

This is when some of those people who were here legally, especially those of Caribbean background, found themselves being treated as illegal immigrants. More than 80 were actually deported, several hundred more were seriously affected — refused entry into the country after going abroad, lost jobs, refused NHS treatment — though nobody knows the exact number. Thanks to a Guardian campaign that placed this injustice on the national agenda in April last year, Amber Rudd had to resign as Home Secretary.

It is fair to say that this was an egregious error stemming from an over-zealous application of the striving for greater control symbolised by Theresa May’s period as Home Secretary. There are all sorts of more specific reasons for the mistake: the loss of historical memory in the Home Office, a “tick-box” culture being applied by people too junior to be taking these decisions, perhaps also the lack of people of relevant ethnic minority backgrounds at the top of the department who might, through family experience, have recognised that the Home Office was wrongly classifying a whole category of legal British residents.

But there is a very powerful account from the Left (summarised in the recent book, The Windrush Betrayal by Amelia Gentleman who covered the story for The Guardian), which states that the mistreatment of the Windrush victims was not a mistake at all but a deliberate policy, the inevitable result of a draconian attempt to reduce immigration, combined with an inhuman system of internal status checks, all driven by racism in both the Home Office and the wider society. The report on lessons of Windrush by Wendy Williams, expected early next year, is likely to reinforce a version of this account.

The policy conclusion from this account is that the hostile environment should in effect be scrapped and almost all forced deportations (apart from criminals) be stopped too. This is where we are currently heading. One Home Office official told me that once someone gets into the country illegally, their chances of being deported are now close to zero. Moreover, the chances of them leaving voluntarily are also close to zero because the hostile environment, apart from employer checks, has also been largely suspended, meaning that information about suspected illegal immigrants is no longer handed over by landlords, banks or NHS officials to the Home Office. Survival is now far easier for illegal immigrants.

The Windrush scandal is not a reason to scrap the current system — which is really a cumbersome UK version of an ID card system for non-citizens — but to make it work better and make sure, with the introduction of a Home Office ombudsman and other such measures, that the Windrush scandal can never be repeated. And if status checks tend to be demanded more from people who do not look or sound like the British majority then the simple answer is to make everyone submit to a status check when taking a job or renting a property.

Immigration restrictions are always most likely to be aimed at people from poorer countries, and people from such countries tend not to be white. If that makes immigration restrictions racist then the Home Office is racist. But it is also worth recalling that the largest national category turned away at the border every year are Americans (mainly white) and the top three countries for forced returns in 2019 were Romania, Albania and Poland.

The Home Office’s completely legitimate attempt to bear down on the scourge of illegal immigration has, in effect, been kicked into touch. The Immigration Enforcement department of the Home Office employs nearly 5,000 people and spends almost £500m a year and parts of it are now paralysed by the post-Windrush trauma. Many of the decent people who work in it have been made to feel dirty about the important public service they perform. Too many of them are leaving.

This is why all talk of an amnesty has to be treated with great caution. Britain is, and will remain, an internationally open “hub” country inviting large annual flows across its borders. There were 142m arrivals into the UK last year. About 120m of those people are UK and EU citizens who have the right to live and work here, but 20m are people who do not have that automatic right and 3m of them came in on time-limited visas. The temptation, especially for some people from poorer countries, to overstay a visa is considerable before even mentioning the tens of thousands who arrive every year clandestinely on lorries or boats and a similar number who have their asylum claims turned down but are seldom removed.

There is a constant struggle by Immigration Enforcement to keep these numbers down and prevent the illegal population running out of control. So now is not the time for Boris Johnson to make a flamboyant gesture on amnesty, much as his sister-in-law might like it (his brother, Jo, is married to Amelia Gentleman). A general amnesty is a terrible idea and would be a huge incentive to illegal immigration at a time when the policing of the internal border has been severely weakened.

Clearly in the longer term, when the Home Office has recovered from the Windrush trauma, we need a sensible combination of quiet regularisation — I would favour an amnesty for anyone who has been here over 10 years — plus a restored hostile environment (with proper safeguards to ensure no repeat of the Windrush scandal), and deportation, enforced if necessary, for those who have no right to be here.

It also makes sense to bribe people more generously to leave. Some of those funds that the Department for International Development sits on could be usefully employed helping illegal immigrants to return home with the promise of support to start a small business or fund a course of study or something similar. Many illegal immigrants are among the most energetic and ambitious citizens of poorer countries and while it is understandable that they want to short circuit the historical process by jumping straight into the rich world, their fellow citizens badly need them to help their countries catch up.

Of course, there is one simple policy idea that would have prevented the Windrush scandal, would deter illegal immigration, and would simplify relations between the individual and the state—the introduction of a national system of citizen identification (ID cards in old language). That is something worth putting in the Tory manifesto.


A version of this piece appears in the next issue of Standpoint

David Goodhart is the author of Head, Hand, Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century. He is head of the Demography unit at the think tank Policy Exchange.