Jack Dromey, deputy general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, has called for an amnesty for the estimated half million so-called “illegal immigrants” who work, without permission from the government, in the service economy, agriculture, cleaning and catering, and caring for the old and sick.
On the BBC Today programme on 20 May, Dromey said they are “good men and women who are the backbone of our economy” who “need to emerge from the twilight of fear, anxiety and exploitation”, and who cannot reasonably all be deported.
The government has said that it does not rule out the idea of an amnesty, although it seems unlikely to implement one before the next general election.
On the face of it, the call for an amnesty for “illegal” immigrants must surely be a good thing. It demonstrates some recognition of their value and needs.
The initiative represents a huge step forward for trade unions, which are beginning to accept that their members’ interests lie in recruiting and fighting for the rights of immigrant workers, rather than trying to keep them out.
But amnesties, by their nature, apply only to the people who have already succeeded in entering the country. They exclude others who might try to follow.
While the racists oppose amnesties on the grounds they might attract future migrants, the government promises to crack down yet more brutally on any subsequent migrants. Many thousands of people will therefore continue to suffer and to die, as they now do, in their attempt to migrate to find work or refuge.
Those who are granted amnesty should in theory make the inestimable gain of being freed from the fear of deportation. They should also, in theory, be less brutally exploited by employers, who can no longer call the police and get them deported if they protest or join trade unions.
But even for them, amnesty may mean, as it has elsewhere in Europe, merely one year residence permits, perhaps permission to work for their current employer only, and probably months or years of bureaucratic obstruction and delay. It seems improbable that a New Labour government would do better.
For those who, as David Blunkett put it when an amnesty was mooted in 2000, “put their hands up” and ask the authorities for amnesty but are not given it, the situation is worse than it was before.
In France in 1997, of the 150,000 who applied for amnesty only 75,000 got it (for one year). The rest, who had revealed their names and addresses, became subject to deportation.
In Britain the 1974 amnesty was so hedged around with conditions that many of those who applied did not fall within it. A lawyer who practised at the time said it was “a deliberate minefield aimed at trapping people”.
Amnesties can seem more like a trap than an offer, a way of flushing out the “illegals” who the gutter press are baying to have deported.
Amnesties may, or may not, be a reform to be welcomed. But they will not achieve full and equal rights for all residents and all immigrants, past, present and future (and perhaps not even for those who are granted amnesty).
Without such rights, immigrants will continue to be vulnerable and insecure, and to suffer from “precarity” (the word now used throughout Europe for this generalised insecurity).
Partial amnesty will not stop capital using immigrants as a source of cheap and exploitable labour, and potentially, the government hopes, a means of undermining the rights of all workers.
It would be better if the situation of all migrants was like the situation of migrants into Britain from its former empire before the 1962 immigration act (and as the situation of Irish nationals still is). This would mean unrestricted entry and the same citizenship rights as everybody else.
Equality and security will not be achieved for migrants until, like the rest of us (unless ID cards are imposed), they do not have to apply to the authorities for the right to live and work in this country.
This means the abolition of immigration controls.
She is the author of Open Borders: The Case Against Immigration Controls (Pluto). NOII’s website contains a statement on amnesty proposals.
These and many other groups in Europe, Africa, the US and Australia support a call for an international day of action on 7 October for freedom of movement, against immigration detention and immigration controls.
On 15 July, 1pm-5.30pm, at the Cross Street Chapel. Cross Street, Manchester, NOII is holding a planning meeting to organise a national trade union conference on issues including amnesty.