We’re all immigration officers now

Panicked by the rise of anti-immigration Britain, the government is readying its defences against those bothersome Bulgarians and roving Romanians, judging by the Queen’s Speech today.

It’s no coincidence that an immigration bill is on the agenda in the same year that those two countries gain full membership of the EU (allowing them to come and live work more freely in the UK). Its content, interestingly, looks almost like it’s designed to turn the indigenous population into informants. Maybe that’s a bit extreme… but perhaps you’re the best judge of that. Here are the main points:

  1. Access to the NHS will be tightened. It’s not clear how, but ministers are considering asking hospital/GP admin staff to check patients’ immigration status and eligibility.
  2. Illegal immigrants will be prevented from getting driving licences, which will require DVLA checks of immigration status and eligibility.
  3. Businesses caught employing illegal workers will face bigger fines, putting pressure on British companies to check an employee’s immigration status and eligibility.
  4. Landlords must check new tenants to ensure they have the correct immigration status and eligibility.
  5. Oh, there’s also customs and immigration at the borders, let’s not forget.

Maybe school teachers should start asking for birth certificates.

The bit about all this I find most amusing is that none of it will actually affect Bulgarians and Romanians. Or anybody else from the EU, because, at least by the end of 2013, they’ll all be allowed to live and work in the UK anyway. It also seems that the number of people packing suitcases for the UK are far, far fewer than originally thought.

That’s not to say that illegal immigration is not a problem. Nobody knows how many illegal migrants are living in the UK. Estimates range wildly from a few hundred thousand to almost a million. The Daily Mail claimed recently that removing an illegal migrant can cost up to £25,000, although I wouldn’t put much stock in the reliability of that paper’s statistical prowess.

Aside from the financial case, the thing I worry about is that Britain is turning itself into a rabid anti-immigrant, every-foreigner-should-be-treated-with-suspicion kind of culture. National borders are not the way of the world any more. If the UK carries on shutting everybody off and referring to Europe as if it wasn’t part of it, they’ll just leave us behind.

Bottom line: immigration policy seems to be more about perception than it is about reality.

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