UK immigration policy: we need to talk about citizens (and citizenship)

[Article published in OpenDemocracy 50:50 on 4 February 2013]

The family rules introduced by the UK government as part of its crusade to curb net migration are surreptitiously redefining the meaning of citizenship and the boundaries between the state and its subjects, says Nando Sigona.

There is nothing new about seeing immigration and immigrants used as scapegoats for popular anxiety or as a diversion from the economic crisis (see the significant following of Golden Dawn in Greece). It is even less surprising to see politicians mobilize electoral support around the moral panic surrounding new immigrant arrivals (see lately the terms and tone of the debate on potential new arrivals from Romania and Bulgaria). Still, the new immigration family rulesintroduced last summer shed light on a less visible side of immigration policy and practice: the permeability and historically contingent nature of the boundaries between citizenship and non-citizenship and the concrete ways immigration rules produce and shape not only the position, entitlements and experiences of non-citizens in society, but also the very meaning of what citizenship is and of what being a citizen entails.

The conversation on migration seems to be mainly focused on the consequences of human mobility, polarised between those campaigning for migration and migrants’ rights on the one hand, and those concerned with the impact of migration on public services, social cohesion and security on the other.  Less attention is afforded to the impact of immigration governance on migrants and even less on citizens. There are some noticeable exceptions, as demonstrated by recent work carried out at the University of Oxford. Researchon undocumented migrant children in the UK shows how, despite both international and British laws which guarantee children access to education and healthcare irrespective of their immigration status, increased demands on public authorities by the UK Border Agency (UKBA) are pushing children and families away from essential services, leaving them more vulnerable and isolated. Similarly, Bridget Anderson’s latest book examines how the ‘dangerous politics of immigration control’ shapes the relationship between Good CitizensFailed Citizens and Non-Citizens.

UK citizens are becoming used to the gradual and pervasive penetration of UKBA into their hospitals, GP practices, universities, colleges and schools; the turning of public services into outposts of immigration enforcement. They are becoming used to being asked to present a valid visa or passport when applying for a job, or to sign a register used to assess whether they are a ‘bogus’ or genuine student when attending a lecture. These practices have become the norm for all, immigrants and citizens alike, and up to now they have faced relatively little opposition.

Initiatives such as the National Allegations Database, which encourages the public to act as UKBA informers through spying on their neighbours, or on anyone who they think, for whatever reason, might be residing illegally in the UK, have moved the bar even further, subcontracting an important task of immigration control to law-abiding citizens. Information collected via the database is to be processed by new privatized immigration officers working for Capita plc.

While this attempt to stretch immigration control well beyond the control of external borders into public services seems to be the dominant trend, there are also signs that this approach may turn out to be both politically and administratively unmanageable. The frequent scandals that have seen the UKBA and its sister agency UK Border Force accused repeatedly of poor efficacy and transparency, despite management reshuffles and various rounds of restructuring, highlight the limits of a bureaucratic apparatus that is overgrown through successive layers of legislation. These constant reforms have left behind a complex machinery, full of incongruences that make it not only extremely difficult to manage but also vulnerable to legal challenges from multiple sides.

There is nevertheless an element of novelty to the way the new family rules, almost as a side effect, intervene and interfere in one of the most intimate and private spheres of a citizen’s life. This raises important questions concerning what exactly it is that the government assesses when evaluating the impact of immigration policy, and how it defines (rather narrowly) the ‘main affected groups’ in a way that consciously leaves aside an analysis of the unequal impacts of its measures on citizens and citizenship.

The introduction of the new family policy has made family reunion for citizens and migrants with non-EU partners more difficult, and subject to a complex and time-consuming procedure which can take months to complete. This has obvious consequences for relationships, and particularly for children. The rules set a new minimum income threshold of £18,600 for bringing to the UK a spouse or partner, fiancé(e) or proposed civil partner of non-EU nationality, with an even higher threshold depending on the number of dependent children. These measures are part of the UK government’s grand plan to curb net migration to ‘the tens of thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands’, in the words of British Prime Minister David Cameron. The use of net migration, that is the difference between in-migration and out-migration, as a compass of immigration policy is highly questionable and has been criticised on a number of grounds, not least because it relies on the level of emigration, an independent variable that is not directly or significantly affected by immigration policy.

There is also a further aspect to consider. As Agnes Woolley has explained, the immigration rules do not impact all citizens in the same way. The analysisof the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory clearly shows that some groups of citizens are affected significantly more than others, including the more than 40% of British people in employment who do not qualify due to their low income. Those who will not qualify are mainly women, young people in their twenties, or residents of Wales, Merseyside, North West England, and Yorkshire and Humberside. A look at the recently released Census dataconfirms that there are a very large number of UK citizens from a variety of social backgrounds who increasingly live in mixed status families who could be impacted by the new family rules. If we turn numbers into words, we could say that the government’s goal to control immigration and immigrants has become a vehicle for class politics, or, perhaps more crudely, that the citizenship rights of many Britons are being threatened by a policy designed to serve the interests and visions of a London-centric, ageing, male-dominated elite.

Families directly affected by the new rules are starting to speak out in an effort to create public interest and support. Stories are beginning to surface of families torn apart by the new rules, of young couples no longer able to live together, of children separated by one of their parents, of elderly family members left behind in order to comply with the new rules. Many of these stories are being collated in a new blog entitled BritCits, the name of which is in itself revealing, suggesting as it does an analysis of the devastating impact of these new immigration policy from the perspective not of would-be entrants, but of British citizens. The inefficiency of the system is also back under public scrutiny following the recent revelation of yet another backlog; victims here include wealthy British citizens kept away for months from their American wives because applications are sitting in boxes unopened. These stories challenge unspoken assumptions regarding who it is that is the target of immigration policy, and also who should feel the urge to oppose them. This realisation may ultimately succeed in creating a larger social movement against effects and side effects of current immigration policy which, in contrast to an immigration discourse that polarises immigrants and citizens, unites them in a common cause.

What future for undocumented migrant children in the UK?

compasHere the ppt of the Compas Breakfast Briefing I gave in December on the situation of undocumented migrant children in the UK.

An estimated 120,000 undocumented migrant children live in the UK. A large majority of these are either born in the country or migrated here at an early age. These children were brought up in the UK, educated in British schools and many speak English as their main language. Successive British governments have provided undocumented migrant  children with some entitlement to public services. However, contradictory and frequently changing rules and regulations, cuts to public spending, and broader reforms in the provision of public services mean that even when legal provisions still exist, access to public services has become limited in practice, which can lead to destitution and social exclusion. The risk of producing a generation of disenfranchised youth, de facto non-deportable and yet excluded from citizenship, should not be underestimated and demands sensible and pragmatic solutions.

This briefing is based on ‘No way out, no way in: Irregular migrant children and families in the UK’ by Nando Sigona and Vanessa Hughes (2012). The COMPAS study was funded by the Barrow Cadbury Trust.

Hundreds of children live in the UK without legal status: interview on Voice of Russia

Wilson Center, Washington DC

A startling number of children are living in the United Kingdom with no formal documentation. Many of the children have been brought into the country as ‘illegal immigrants’ while others have been born here and never registered.I spoke to VOR’s Tim Ecott on how serious the problem is and of the risk of lack of legal immigration becoming de facto statelessness for tens of thousands of children. The interview is a response to today’s BBC news on statelessness in London that rather confusingly conflates destitution, lack of legal immigration and statelessness. Unfortunately, the heading and subheading given to the interview by Voice of Russia doesn’t do justice to the contents of the interview.

Legal status, rights and belonging: International symposia

The analysis of the relationship between legal status, rights and belonging is the central theme of two symposia jointly organised by the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago and the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS), the Refugee Studies Centre (RSC) and the Oxford Institute of Social Policy (OISP) at the University of Oxford.

The symposia are convened by Dr Roberto G. Gonzales  (University of Chicago) and myself .

Main Themes of the International Symposia

The events will be held respectively in Oxford in April 2013 and in Chicago in October 2013 and will address two interrelated aspects of the relationship between legal status, rights and belonging:

The symposium will investigate the interplay between forms and modes of contemporary membership, migration governance (both immigration and emigration), and the politics of belonging. This will be achieved through in-depth examinations of a range of experiences of membership including, but not limited to, those of:  ethnic minorities; citizen children of undocumented migrant parents; former unaccompanied asylum seeking children; people with dual citizenship; ‘failed’ asylum seekers; and stateless people. Participants are invited to discuss issues such as the position of the non-citizen in contemporary immigration and emigration states; the nexus between human mobility, immigration control, and citizenship; the tension in policy and practice between coexisting traditions and regimes of rights; and the intersection of ‘race’ and other social cleavages and legal status. The Oxford symposium is organised by Dr Nando Sigona (Refugee Studies Centre), Vanessa Hughes (COMPAS) & Dr Elaine Chase (Oxford Institute of Social Policy).

  • Illegality, youth and belonging  (Chicago, October 2013)

This second symposium will explore the confusing and contradictory experiences of belonging and illegality that frame the everyday lives of undocumented immigrant youth. Over the last two decades in the United States, non-citizens have experienced a shrinking of rights while immigrant communities have witnessed an intensification of enforcement efforts in neighbourhoods and public spaces. In effect, these trends have sewn fear and anxiety and narrowed the worlds of youth—such that even mundane acts of driving, waiting for the bus, and traffic stops can lead to the loss of a car, prison and deportation. But these young people have also benefited from local and national efforts to widen access—particularly in the realm of education—providing young immigrants important opportunities to establish connections, form relationships, and participate in the day-to-day life of their communities. The experiences of undocumented immigrant youth teach us about the two-sided nature of citizenship—such that persons can be removed from spaces, denied privileges and rights, but can experience belonging too.

Collectively this joint initiative aims to break new ground through analyses that are empirically informed, theoretically engaged and ethnographically rich and drawing on the expertise of scholars from a range of disciplinary backgrounds and state contexts. As immigration has become a topic of great visibility among scholars, policy makers, and the media, this endeavour holds appeal to a range of audiences. Read the Background paper & Call for Papers