New research shows that the immigration insecurity of one family member now affects whole families, including children and citizens who are not themselves subject to immigration control, writes Dr Melanie Griffiths of the University of Bristol.
This week, the University of Bristol published three policy briefings arising from new research examining the intersection of family life and immigration insecurity. Between 2014 and 2017, social researchers followed around 30 affected couples, in addition to interviewing practitioners from the state, legal, NGO and private sectors, and observing dozens of deportation appeals and other immigration hearings.
Analysis of the data provides insights into the impacts of immigration precariousness and enforcement on experiences and practices of family formation, including for British and EEA national family members. It illustrates the lived impacts of legislation such as LASPO 2012 and the Immigration Act 2014, including policy changes relating to the government’s emphasis on deporting “foreign criminals”, creating a hostile environment for irregular migrants and narrowing of its interpretation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to respect for private and family life).
The research focuses on “mixed-immigration status couples”, consisting of foreign national men with irregular or precarious immigration status, and their British or EEA-national partners and children. Representing a wide variety of nationalities, the men had uncertain or unlawful immigration status as a result of temporary or overstayed visas, refused asylum claims, criminal records or illegal entry. Some never had legal leave to remain, others spent years in semi-legal limbo, others were previously lawfully present, or even settled or naturalised. They were all now vulnerable to immigration enforcement action and potential expulsion, were prohibited from working and faced a multitude of everyday restrictions under the hostile environment.
Impacts on families
I had no solicitor, I become my solicitor. Since my other half got taken into IRC Morton Hall, I have been his wife, I have been his solicitor, his legal rep… even when we went to court I represented him to the judge. I threw as much as I could at them but it just wasn’t enough.
I am selling up every single piece of thing that I own so that I can be with the man I love. I have lost everything.
The first report presents policy-related findings and recommendations arising from the project as a whole, including in relation to family life, law and policy, and British and European family members. It finds evidence of high collateral damage, including to British children, and that retreating legal aid means that families are often trying to navigate the system without legal advice or representation. The research also finds race- and gender-bias in the system that mean decision-makers routinely undervalue and mistrust the private lives of foreign national men.
It calls on the government to tackle barriers to accessing justice and to revert to its pre-2012 interpretation of Article 8 rights in settlement and deportation cases.
Life without a secure immigration status, the resulting battles with the Home Office and the stress of potential separation from family are profoundly difficult experiences, with harms to people’s physical and emotional wellbeing, social mobility and finances. These experiences damage relationships (including between parents and children), shape decisions regarding marriage, cohabitation and conception, and affect people’s mental health. Contrary to popular suspicion, the research found that irregular migrant men tend to seek to avoid marriage and children (and sometimes even relationships altogether) whilst their immigration status remains insecure, with some concluding “people like us just shouldn’t fall in love”.
The deprivations of an irregular immigration status and the prohibition against work result in early and often extreme dependency on partners, who frequently become burdened by financial responsibility. The women interviewed were made poorer as they lost savings and became indebted by legal and application fees, costs of visits to partners in prison, immigration detention or overseas, and compensating for their partners’ forced unemployment.
Separation and financial pressures could force them to work excessive hours and multiple jobs, even forcing some to sacrifice maternity leave despite the NHS advice on breastfeeding. Others were made single parents through deportation and forced out of work and onto welfare reliance. Changed marital status affected people’s welfare benefits even when their foreign husbands couldn’t work or access welfare, with some citizen interviewees forced to rely on Crisis Loans, the food bank or appealing on social media for baby milk.
We can’t just do what we want. You can’t live the life that you want to live, you can’t do anything.
They have basically sucked every single bit of love for the UK out of me. And my passport now is just my way out of here.
The British and EEA national women also reported impacts on their sense of security and belonging to the country. They described being humiliated by invasive questioning and disbelief from the authorities, and feeling powerless and immobile. They were unable to envisage, trust in or plan for a future and described being socially and spatially stuck.
Some even started to act in ways more reminiscent of precarious migrants than entitled citizens. One British woman lives with her suitcases packed, another carries her passport everywhere in case of immigration checks and others report anxiety at the sight of immigration vans. All had their ideas about the meaning and value of citizenship shaken, with some reporting civic disenfranchisement among their British children.
It’s just so wrong on every level. To say that you can have your family somewhere else, I mean that’s just ridiculous. Why should I have to go and live somewhere else?
British citizens’ ideas about their rights, security and expectations of citizenship were particularly shaken by separation from partners and by suggestions from the Home Office that they leave the UK with the removed spouse if they wish to continue their family life.
Separation was sometimes across borders and could last years or even be permanent. In other cases separation occurred within the UK, primarily as a result of immigration detention. The second policy brief focuses on the immigration detention of fathers, finding that separated children develop emotional, behavioural and educational problems, including anxiety, depression and attachment difficulties.
The briefing calls for community-based alternatives to detention and the introduction of a 28-day time limit. It recommends that the government contractually obliges detention providers to help detainees maintain links with their family, including by establishing travel funds to facilitate family visits and providing access to social media such as Skype.
The third policy brief focuses on Operation Nexus, an interagency arrangement between the police and Home Office that is changing the UK’s approach to deportation. Despite claiming to target high-harm serious criminals, it draws in a much wider range of people, including low-level, petty and historical offenders, and even those with nascent criminality who are alleged to be of “criminal character”.
The findings raise a number of serious concerns, including in relation to the potential for discrimination. Operation Nexus is “intelligence-led” and allows deportation cases to be built on the basis of police contact and “non-convictions”, such as stop-and-searches (even if nothing is found), withdrawn charges, and arrests made in error or not leading to charges. Even being a witness or a victim of crime may form part of the case for a “criminal lifestyle”.
Those affected are made legally vulnerable by barriers to legal advice and representation, and having their appeals heard in the Administrative Appeals Chamber, where low evidential requirements allows consideration of hearsay, anonymous allegations and circumstantial evidence, including unevidenced accusations of gang membership.
Public safety and social cohesion require a clear distinction between immigration and policing. The briefing calls on government to direct the police to prioritise community relations over immigration objectives and to cease passing victim and witness details to the Home Office. It also calls for strengthening access to justice and protecting young people from Operation Nexus, given the nature of youth offending and gravity of deportation.
Together, the briefings offer an insight into the lived realities of recent immigration legislation and policy shifts, including for British and EEA nationals connected to precarious migrants by blood or affection. A full report on the project will be out in February. Get in touch if you would like more information.