The British Minister for Immigration who was responsible for last year’s ‘Go home or face arrest’ mobile billboard campaign to target illegal immigrants resigned on Saturday when it transpired that the domestic cleaner he had engaged was an illegal immigrant.
In his resignation to Prime Minister David Cameron, Mark Harper (43), an anti-immigration hardliner and one of the Conservative party’s rising stars, said: “Although I complied with the law at all times, I consider that as immigration minister, who is taking legislation through Parliament which will toughen out our immigration laws, I should hold myself to a higher standard than expected of others.”
Mr. Cameron accepted the resignation saying that he “enormously appreciated” Mr. Harper’s stand.
Mr. Harper is an ardent supporter of the new Immigration Bill draft which went through its third reading in the House of Commons last month and which the present government hopes to put in place by May this year. The bill introduces several stringent new measures to check illegal immigration.
In the event, Mr. Harper’s resignation is already being used to prove the point that the government has been pressing all along — illegal immigration is so widespread that even the most careful of employers can be caught on the wrong foot.
The issue of immigration lies just beneath the surface of the political debate in the U.K. and rises to the top every time an incident of illegal immigration, real or otherwise, comes to light.
There are several intertwining strands in the debate. The first is the issue of controls on immigration in general in the context of this government’s promises to reduce net migration levels to the “tens of thousands.” The website ‘Migration Watch’ says that net migration in 2012 was 176,000, down from 252,000 in 2010.
The second relates to immigration from Bulgaria and Romania on which restrictions were lifted on January 1 this year in compliance with European Union (EU) regulations. The establishment argument is that immigrants from these relatively poor EU countries will swamp the U.K., claiming benefits that they have not worked for. Under pressure from ultra-conservatives Mr. Cameron announced that job-seekers from these countries would not be entitled to any work or health benefits for the first three months after their arrival.
The third strand in the immigration debate is linked to terrorism and the policy towards those immigrants who have acquired U.K. citizenship but have suspected links with terrorist organisations.
Last but not the least is the question of how immigration policies have affected overseas students seeking to study in world-class institutions of higher education in the U.K. Despite assurances from British leaders that they want to attract the “brightest and the best” from India, unreasonable visa and residential requirements combined with high fees and living costs have made the U.K. a less-favoured destination for Indian students. There has been a drop of 25 percentage points in the numbers of Indian students in the U.K. between 2010-11 and 2011-12. Withdrawing the post-study work rule that allowed students to work in the U.K. for a year after graduation to pay back student loans has hit students hard.
These singular but connected elements of the immigration scenario, fed by misinformation and fear, have come together to create a potentially explosive political cocktail.
How does the new immigration bill seek to address these issues? By grasping the wrong end of the stick it would appear, as the amendments are mostly punitive and less concerned with mechanisms of restricting illegal immigrants from entering. For example, landlords and employers will be empowered to check the immigration status of tenants/employees with fines up to £3000 as punishment if they fail to do so. Second, short-term migrants will have to pay for the services of the NHS. The right of appeal of any immigration decision will be withdrawn except on grounds other than asylum or human rights, and those who are deported may only appeal after their deportation. These are but a few of the changes sought.
The reality is that the overwhelming majority of the U.K.’s informal economy, and a significant segment of its formal economy, consists of immigrants, old and new. The last census figures state that 55 per cent of London’s population is non-white.
From doctors, lawyers and bankers at one end of the spectrum to domestic workers, cleaners, construction labour, shop floor workers and assistants, and even Heathrow immigration personnel at the other, the U.K. is healthily and vibrantly diverse. It is surely one aspect of Britain’s colonial legacy that should be embraced and not surrendered.