Following the Home Office’s recent propaganda campaign exhorting undocumented immigrants to leave the country, we have now learned that Theresa May has turned to more violent means in her anti-immigrant crackdown. Immigration officers have been conducting “spot checks” outside railway stations to catch undocumented immigrants – disproportionately targeting people of colour, and intimidating and verbally abusing people who try to stand up for their rights.
This forms part of a disturbing pattern of anti-immigrant hatred which is already costing lives. At the Feminist Hivemind, I have recently written about the tragic death of Ugandan lesbian woman Jackie Nanyonjo, who, forced on to a deportation flight to Uganda, was beaten so severely by security guards from the private contractor Reliance that she died of her injuries. We have also learned in recent weeks of the existence of a secret ministerial committee, formerly named the “hostile environment working group”, with an explicit mandate to make life worse for undocumented migrants and failed asylum-seekers in the hope of forcing them to leave the country. Many failed asylum-seekers already live in destitution as a result of deliberate government policy.
The Home Office’s latest “crackdown” is chillingly redolent of the worst excesses of authoritarian states: a policy in which people, disproportionately people of colour, can be stopped on the street at any time and interrogated about their immigration status. Much of the opposition to the policy has been focused on the likelihood that people who are not actually undocumented will be wrongly targeted – as indeed has happened. But that is not the only reason why this policy should be condemned. Tepid and half-hearted criticisms along the lines of “illegal immigration is a problem, but this isn’t the right way to deal with it” implicitly concede most of the debate to the racists. We should not use or accept stigmatizing terms like “illegal immigrant”: as Elie Wiesel famously asked, how can a human being be “illegal”? Nor should we accept the orthodoxy that irregular migration is a “problem” that needs to be “stopped” by means of state violence. Irregular migration is a manufactured problem: it is a problem created by our arbitrary and discriminatory immigration laws, in which a person’s rights and status are made to depend upon the accident of birth. Why should a person be denied equal civil rights in this country merely because they were born in Kampala, Karachi or Mogadishu rather than London? And why are we not outraged by the fact that significant numbers of people every year – most of whom are people of colour from the developing world, and some of whom are survivors of unimaginable trauma – are arrested and held against their will in hellholes like Yarl’s Wood, by our government, for no other crime than being foreign? Why are we willing to countenance this cruelty in our names?
We need to stop conceding ground to the xenophobic far right. Immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, are not “problems” – they are human beings with human rights. We need to fight for equal rights and emancipation for all immigrants. We know that public pressure makes a difference: Josephine Komeh’s deportation to Sierra Leone was recently stopped after a public campaign organized by the Movement for Justice, and Senegalese gay activist Serigne Tacko Mbengue has been granted asylum. Let us hope that sustained public pressure can put a stop to the Home Office’s campaign of spot-checks.