Sabrina Huck examines the proposed changes in the law for immigration in the recently published Immigration White Paper
Immigration reform after Brexit has been framed by the right and some of the left as an opportunity to re-organise the system from rules which unfairly advantage European migrants – particularly unskilled workers – over migrants from other parts of the world – particularly skilled workers such as doctors.
The Immigration White Paper therefore opens a ‘skilled workers’ visa route for European and non-European citizens, with the requirement of employer sponsorship, a salary threshold of £30.000 and the ability to bring dependents and eventually gain a permanent settlement status.
Most of the immediate discussion around the White Paper has focused on whether a salary threshold this high is appropriate, or even an accurate measurement to determine a person’s skills level.
But thus far, less attention has been paid to the new rules for so-called ‘low skilled’ workers.
Under the new rules set out in the Immigration White Paper, ‘low skilled’ workers from ‘low risk’ countries (countries whose citizens are deemed less likely to commit immigration offences such as overstaying or coming under false premises) can apply to work in the UK for up to 12 months, with no ability to bring family members, access different visa schemes or extend their stay, and without access to public benefits during their time. When the 12 months are up, the person is not allowed to re-apply for this visa until a ‘cooling off’ period of a year has passed, effectively banning them from re-entering for work purposes in this time.
This is highly problematic for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the distinction between ‘low risk’ and ‘high risk’ countries is deeply rooted in racist and classist prejudice.
The White Paper identifies countries such as Australia, the US, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and Singapore as ‘low risk’ countries, whereas poorer countries, most likely African and Arab countries, will be classified as ‘high risk’. It is no surprise that in the spirit of an Empire 2.0 Brexit, the Government decides to mainly advantage the Anglo-sphere but does not open any additional opportunities for working class people of the global south to migrate to and work in Britain.
Secondly, the ‘low-skilled’ workers scheme is actively designed to discourage working class people from permanently settling in the UK, erodes their basic rights and makes them second class citizens in this country.
Such a scheme is particularly bizarre in light of discussions around the ability of migrants to ‘integrate’ into British society. A 12 months visa scheme with no prospect of long-term stay or ability to bring family members will not lead to a deeper involvement of these workers with British society.
In consequence, the short-termism of such a ‘Gastarbeiter’-style scheme will make it incredibly hard for Unions to organise these workers, putting them at high risk of exploitation.
In her response to the Immigration White Paper, Diane Abbott, the Shadow Home Secretary, has rightly said that a salary threshold of £30.000 for skilled workers was not reflective of a skills-based immigration system, as skill levels are not always appropriately reflected in salary levels.
But Abbott is not challenging the basic assumption that a person’s ability to enter the country, and to live a life with full citizens rights, is determined by their material contribution to the needs of British capital.
This is a dangerous line for the left to take, as it concedes to the right’s political argument that immigration in itself is not a right, and that people’s worth is determined by their (narrowly defined) value for the economic system. This argument underpins much of the Conservative’s austerity agenda, the demonisation of the working class, poor and disabled, as undeserving, because they do not ‘contribute’ their ‘fair share’ to society.
Despite all the rhetoric around creation of a fairer immigration system, the White Paper clearly illustrates that Theresa May interprets the vote to leave the European Union as a mandate to push through stricter immigration controls and toughen the UK border.
For example, the White Paper states Britain’s intention to defend Fortress Europe, working with the European Union and Turkey to ‘tackle illegal immigration to Europe from Africa and the Middle East’ and supporting the Dublin Regulation, which allows refugees to only seek asylum in the first safe country they reach.
This regulation puts a disproportionate burden on countries such as Italy and Greece, purely based on geography, and lets wealthy countries such as the UK off the hook for their responsibilities.
The White Paper also renews the Government’s commitment to the hostile environment, explicitly stating the need to carry out right to work and right to rent checks to tackle illegal immigration.
As legislation will be brought forward to end the free movement of people, European nationals coming to the UK in the future will be subject to British immigration law, which brings with it a lower threshold for refusal of entry and removals, including deportation on the basis of ‘being in the interest of the public good’.
Anti-racism campaigners have a duty to oppose the toxic hostile environment through engaging the public in a positive debate about immigration, challenge the arguments that a person’s value for society can be determined purely based on their economic contribution and by effectively lobbying parliamentarians to oppose legislation enforcing these immigration policies.