New immigration policies intensify politics of hostility in the UK

Theresa May and David Cameron meet immigration officers after a raid on residential properties. Laura Lean / PA Wire/Press Association Images

New measures to crackdown on “rogue landlords” and “illegal immigrant tenants” are a signal of intent from the Conservative government. The new proposals will give landlords the ability to evict illegal immigrants without a court order and force them to carry out “right to rent” checks on tenants.

This continues the UK’s “politics of hostility” on immigration. This was the language used by the previous coalition government which went so far as to create a hostile environment working group on immigration issues. The idea is to make life as difficult as possible for those who do not follow the immigration rules by expanding and intensifying border controls. Under the current law, a person cannot claim asylum unless he or she is on UK soil.

The government’s proposals mean people and organisations in both public and private sectors will be required to police the immigration rules. The underlying rationale is that this will help remove those without the correct immigration status currently in the country, but will also repel future immigrants who are attracted to come to Britain.

Not waiting for the evidence

The introduction of “right to rent” checks on tenants by the previous immigration act was controversial because of claims they would prompt landlords to avoid foreign-sounding or looking people, and force some migrants “underground”. These concerns were partially reflected by the government’s concession to hold a consultation and the decision that national implementation was to be conditional on a positive assessment of a pilot scheme in the West Midlands.

Landlords will have to make even stricter checks on their tenants. -AX-/flickr.com, CC BY-NC

In a speech at the end of May, the prime minister declared the pilot was successful but we are still waiting for the government to publish its evaluation. An independent survey of the pilot is being conducted by a coalition of NGOs including Movement Against Xenophobia and Shelter.

Richard Lambert, chief executive of the National Landlords’ Association, warned about the removal of legal safeguards for housing tenants, asking that the government “think through the consequences” of removing the need for a court order and the presence of a bailiff in the eviction process.

In the absence of direct evidence about effectiveness, the experiences of other countries that have stepped up enforcement on immigration can provide useful insights. Research in the US has found that increased enforcement efforts exacerbate mistrust of authorities among migrant communities – including those who are legally resident. The criminalisation of the whole system has other unintended consequences: immigration enforcement becomes less discriminate, often affecting those in non-targeted groups, such as those who are legally entitled to remain in a country.

State of immigration politics in the UK

The new approach of making Britain a hostile environment is now likely to be expanded. This is the first Conservative-majority government since 1997 and we are learning how limited the influence of the Liberal Democrats was when it came to immigration policy under the coalition.

It amounted to some changes in language and flimsy safeguards relating to civil liberties that can now be swept aside. As Cameron said in his May speech:

The Liberal Democrats only wanted us to run a pilot on that one. But now we’ve got a majority, we will roll it out nationwide.

And there has been little resistance to the new politics of hostility from the official opposition, although that might change depending on the result of the Labour leadership election. Former shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper has argued in the past that controls should be stronger, and enforcement should be stepped up to address people’s fears.

What the public will tolerate

Back in the US, immigration enforcement is now central to tensions between state and federal levels – something that has risen markedly in recent weeks with threats to cut funding for “sanctuary cities”. These cities have chosen not to report undocumented immigrants to federal agencies, partly as a response to the federal government’s stepping up of immigration enforcement.

It’s possible this kind of local resistance could happen in the UK. Whether or not it does will depend on how far the government feels it can go to enforce the rules, what the public will tolerate and where will the line be drawn.

There have long been fines for employers and now landlords who breach immigration law, but many may baulk at fines for doctors who knowingly treat irregular immigrants.

The Conservative government would protest that they were elected on the promise of tougher policies on immigration and that they are addressing genuine public concern on the issue. There is always a choice, however. There is evidence that suggests politicians are wrong to assume they should always “talk tough”: there is room to lead, rather than follow, the debate, and to move it in a more humane direction.