Would an amnesty detoxify the Conservatives?
Maverick Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi has joined London Mayor Boris Johnson in backing an amnesty for “illegal immigrants” because he hopes it would persuade ethnic minority voters to switch allegiance from Labour to Conservative. As a side effect, he says, it might boost the economy, too. Not surprisingly, I have a slightly different view!
TUC policy for many years has been that there should be paths to regularisation for people living in the UK whose migration status is uncertain. We’ve eschewed simplistic labels such as ‘illegal immigrant’ for a number of reasons* – not least the presumption of innocence, and the wide range of circumstances that might be covered: from staying a week over on a holiday visa to working one more hour a week than your visa allows, to the victims of people trafficking. Immigration laws are now so complex, that some people are unaware their legal status is or has become problematic, and some people think they’re here – or working, which is different – illegally when they’re actually not. (It’s been some years since we uncovered evidence of Portuguese workers pretending to their employers that they were Brazilian – and working illegally – just to get a job!)
But Sunder Katwala of British Future – as well as unpicking Zahawi’s simplistic and probably plain wrong assumption that advocating an amnesty will boost the Conservative vote among ethnic minorities – puts his finger on our key concern. As in the USA, where the TUC equivalent AFLCIO has been at the forefront of campaigns to provide paths to citizenship, Katwala says:
“What proved crucial for black voters, as with blue collar and trade union support, was to make enforcing minimum labour standards part of the deal when giving citizenship to the undocumented. This spoke to a shared interest: how preventing the exploitation of those without legal status could protect other workers from being undercut by rogue employers.”
There are other problems with Zahawi’s approach – he’s effectively proposing a second class citizenship for people granted the amnesty he talks about. But there is certainly still a point to discussing the issue in terms other than populist rhetoric, and we should be grateful that some Conservatives, at least, are willing to do that. As to whether they will ever escape from their current position where people are less likely to support a policy when they find out it’s a Conservative one, well, that’s in their own hands!
* UPDATE (3 July2013): The Associated Press (AP) news agency has since April recommended against using the term “illegal immigrant” in its style guide for very similar reasons.