The inhumanity of immigration controls


I defy you to tell me this situation is empowering for ordinary people

‘Taking back control of our borders’ means a huge loss of control for individuals

I recently finished reading Fires and Ashes by Michael Ignatieff. This is a political memoir with a difference. Most books in this genre seek to justify their author’s career. Ignatieff begins by acknowledging that his was misconceived from the start and it was only vanity that led him to embark on it. He gave up an academic job at Harvard and a successful career as a public intellectual for a bid to become Canada’s Prime Minister. While he managed to win the leadership of the Liberal Party, this proved to be a disaster for him and the Party. An aristocratic background and affiliation to prestigious universities left him unable to escape an elitist vibe. Worse still he had spent most of his adult life outside Canada, which provided the basis for a relentless barrage of Conservative adverts warning Canadians that Ignatieff was “just visiting”. The result was the Liberals – who’ve governed Canada for longer than not – being outpolled not only by the Conservatives but also the left-wing NDP. Ignatieff was among the many Liberal MPs to lose their seats.

Canada inherited from Britain a Westminster style parliamentary system. That meant that in order to make a run for Prime Minister Ignatieff had to first become a Member of Parliament representing a constituency. That in turn involved him in the grunt work of finding solutions to the problems that an MP’s constituents have with officialdom. Not with policy changes but pleading e-mails and haranguing phone calls. Ignatieff explains that this experience led him to a less enchanted view of the state:

Most of the favours my staff asked for related to immigration. Here the gulf between liberal good intentions and bureaucratic reality widened into an abyss. A country that take in up to a quarter of a million people a year is bound to have a backlog of applicants, but our Citizenship and Immigration service seemed overwhelmed by the tide. Constituents would beg me to secure for some family member from Indian, Pakistan or the Middle East to attend a family christening, wedding or funeral. All of these visas are granted on a discretionary basis and the decisions often seemed arbitrary and unreasonable.

Our party had opened up the country to multicultural immigration in the late 1960s and we had traded on this for domestic support ever since. What we failed to attend to was that a baffling visa process seemed to stand in the path of every family reunion in our visible-minority communities. Multicultural citizenship for these communities was a costly and incomprehensible obstacle course.

I remember particularly two sisters, trained nurses of Indian parentage, who worked with us to get their aging parents over from India so the family could spend their last years together. The sisters took charge of the process. They went back to India and shepherded their parents through medical exams and immigration interviews, but still no visa was forthcoming. Finally, after I made a direct plea to the minister for immigration, the parents, by then in their late seventies, were granted a visa and arrived in Canada to be met by their overjoyed children. A week later the father died. The whole process had taken six years.

There was no single individual to blame for this tragic result – there rarely is – and the sisters even brought my staff flowers to thank them for their efforts. But the political implications were disturbing. Liberals like me, who believed in an empowering government, failed to appreciate what it was like to beg for visas, to queue in a government office, to be kept waiting or to hang around a mailbox every day for a late pension or unemployment insurance cheque.

Reading this brought to my mind Brexit and the slogan of the campaign for it: ‘take back control’.

This was applied first and foremost to the issue of immigration. Vote Leave told us that:

EU membership stops us controlling who comes into our country, on what terms, and who can be removed. The system is out of control.

But who is ‘we’ in this context? Vote Leave would presumably answer the British people. They’d have to do so through the British state. And how will they control it? Through the kind of bureaucracy Ignatieff found so dehumanising.

Having lived and worked abroad I’ve now gone through the process of applying for work permits multiple times. For me it has been an expensive annoyance. I’ve spent days, travelled hundreds of miles and spent at least $1000 to get pieces of paper in my passport. But I’m lucky.

I’ve seen people pay far higher costs than me. For example, the multinational couple I lived with for a few months, who had to navigate a kind of residential slalom – a year in the UK, a couple in the US – so that they could rely on their ability to live together. Or another friend who had to keep flying back to the US while living in the UK in order to maintain her Green Card.

And then there were the people who didn’t get visas at all. My former boss in Vietnam was denied a tourist visa to visit the UK because of fears she’d try and stay and work illegally. Given that she’d built a very accomplished career where she was this just seemed insulting and I can still remember my embarrassment when I heard this. Or the numerous fluent English speakers I’ve met who can’t teach English in Korea because they don’t have passports from what the ministry of immigration considers English speaking countries. That costs them a job and their potential customers a capable teacher.

And of course this is all at the softer end of the immigration system. The one time I got direct experience of the harder side was when I was a legal intern. I took a trip to Campsfield House to help interview inmates. ‘House’ in this case means one of the immigration service’s ‘prison with carpets’. The ‘crimes’ that led to incarceration at Campsfield were typically having the wrong paper work or being the wrong nationality. And the bureaucratic requirements of the immigration system often meshed poorly with the actual details of applicants lives. For example, we have abundant documentary evidence that being gay in Iran or Pakistan can cost you your life. But how do you provide documentary proof that you are actually gay and not just claiming to be in order to get into the UK?

And in recent years its become grimly clear that controlling legal routes into a country pushes people towards illegal ones. Getting away from the nightmare of conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa to safety in Europe requires dangerous journeys in the back of lorries or decidedly unseaworthy vessels. But it’s not like there are not reliable routes into Europe. I could catch a bus or plane. But the people whose live depend on making this journey would find that route blocked by border guards. Thus migration controls can turn a desire for safety deadly.

Up to now I’ve spoken mostly about the impact of immigration controls on potential migrants. Frankly that ought to be enough: migrants are people too. But for some people it’s necessary to show that the ‘native’ population are affected too. Well if you fall in love with foreign national or want to employ one or to have one visit you for an extended period or to have them as a customer for your business or collaborate with them on a project or teach them then you will find yourself enmeshed in the same nightmare world of seemingly never ending paperwork.

A bureaucracy will always struggle to see you as a person rather than a collection of documents. The beauty of free movement within the EU is that it circumvents this tendency. One document, your passport, gives you the same rights as a citizen of the country you are heading to. Before immigration, the cause celebre of British opponents of the EU was overregulation. Yet ironically their push for our departure will create a massive new field of regulation governing migration between the UK and its neighbours. You may feel those regulations are necessary but if so please recognise that they are a necessary evil. If Britain takes back control of its borders, that will mean a loss of control for millions of individual people – many of them British.

5 thoughts on “The inhumanity of immigration controls

  1. Yet ironically their push for our departure will create a massive new field of regulation governing migration between the UK and its neighbours

    But presumably this whole structure already exists for people form outside the EU? It just means that people from foreign countries inside the EU and outside the EU will be on a level playing field.

    It always seemed weird, and a bit unfair, to me that my Indonesian colleagues have to jump through hoops that my German colleagues don’t.

    • Yes, it means that you and I will be on the same field as a Syrian refugee when trying to spend a weekend in Paris…. nice…

      • That seems unlikely. Surely there will be some kind of visa waiver programme for tourist travel between the UK and the EU, like there currently is between the UK and Switzerland?

        It’s only when it comes to moving to live and work that there may be restrictions or quotas.

  2. “I defy you to tell me this situation is empowering for ordinary people”. Absurd challenged: of course it’s not “empowering for ordinary people”, immigrants in particular. The average ten year old has worked that out.

    The object of the exercise is to benefit the host country. And given your poor command of logic, you’ll probably answer that by claiming immigration controls DON’T benefit the host country. The flaw in that point is that immigration controls simply AIM TO benefit the host country. Whether they actually do or not is another matter.

    • I’m curious whether accusing people of having ‘the logic of a 10 year old’ a strategy you use in offline conversation?

      As I explained in the post the notion that immigration controls empower ordinary people was implicit in the Brexit campaign.

      Also if you read the penultimate paragraph you will note that my assertion that immigration controls are disempowering applies to citizens of the host country too.

      If you think either assertion is incorrect, then please feel free to argue why. But just harumphing about how stupid I am isn’t going to get you very far.

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