The new Immigration Bill had its second reading in the House of Commons yesterday – and was passed with almost no resistance. 303 votes in favour, just 18 against. The Labour Party effectively backed the Bill – to the distress of a considerable number of people, including myself.
Why are some of us worried about this Bill? Well, there are lots of reasons to object to it – not least the overall message that it sends, that somehow immigration is a big problem, one that we can pin a huge number of problems onto, from the pretty much bogus claims of ‘health tourism’ to unemployment to strain on schools to somehow blaming the entire economic problems of this country on them. If we have a problem, immigrants are a convenient group to blame – and have been for a long time. Making such a point of an Immigration Bill just adds to this… and Labour supporting this just adds to the feeling that it’s just ‘truth’.
Your papers please!
That, however, is not what bothers me the most. I’m afraid that battle is one that right now is too hard to fight. The Mail, the Express and UKIP have done their work too well, and Labour, the Lib Dems etc are too scared to oppose it. No, what bothers me most right now is the increasing idea that we need to ‘check’ on people. Doctors need to check people’s immigration status, landlords need to check people’s immigration status, banks need to check people’s immigration status, the DVLA needs to check people’s immigration status etc etc etc…. I can see the argument for some of these – the DVLA it makes the most sense for – but it all adds to an atmosphere where ‘your papers please’ is pretty much the standard answer to any request. That in itself has deep and disturbing implications, implications we should be thinking about.
The first question to ask is who will be asked for their papers. Are people asked for papers only when there is a ‘suspicion’ that they might be an illegal immigrant? If so, what could create that suspicion? That they ‘look’ like an illegal immigrant? What does an illegal immigrant look like? Recent activities of the UKBA suggest that they have certain ideas of what illegal immigrants look like – and those ideas have a distinct whiff of racism in them. Or, perhaps that they ‘sound’ like an illegal immigrant? An accent that doesn’t seem ‘local’? The implications of the possibility there will be more checks on people who look or sound ‘foreign’ should worry anyone with any sense of decency – or any knowledge of history.
There is an alternative, non-racist alternative: that everyone, no matter what they look like or sound like, should have to prove who they are and their immigration status in pretty much every situation. That wouldn’t be racist – but it would be deeply authoritarian. In the UK we have had a deep resistance to the idea of identity cards for a long, long time. We allowed them in the second war, but after the historic case of Willcock vs Muckle in 1951 we rejected them, and attempts to bring them in since have all failed. Indeed, opposition to the last Labour government’s ID card plan was central to the Coalition government’s plans – and one of their first actions in government was to cancel the programme.
This Immigration Bill, and the strategy in which is plays a part, could well bring about a kind of ‘ID cards by the back door’ plan: if we’re all forced to prove who we are, isn’t an ID card the logical way to do it? They wouldn’t call it an ID card of course – something like an ‘entitlement card’ would sound less offensive…. but the effect, particularly for poorer and more vulnerable people who need to access more services, for people from ethnic minorities who are more likely to be challenged, would be identical. It would be just as authoritarian.
Or a bit of both?
In reality, the impact is likely to be both racist and authoritarian. People who ‘look’ or ‘sound’ foreign will be challenged more often – or simply ignored or refused services, not offered accommodation – and there will be increasing occasions when we all will be required to ‘prove’ who we are.
We should be thinking far more carefully about the implications of bills like this – both in terms of the messages they send out and in terms of their impact in the real world. At the moment we seem to be thinking very narrowly, and on a very short term basis, without seeing the bigger picture. That isn’t good at all.