Interviewer: What do you think it means to be British?
Mary: It is a passport. To be British now, I’m sorry to say this, but it is a passport. That is it. That is what being British means to me. I have lost faith in the country which I used to call home. I have lost faith, I have lost trust. Every single bit of pride that I had to be calling myself a British citizen has gone out of the window. They have basically sucked every single bit of love for the UK out of me.
Mary, a white, British-born citizen, was interviewed as part of new research examining the impact of insecure immigration status on mixed-nationality families in the UK. Like other interviewees, Mary experienced considerable financial, emotional and psychological harm because of her husband’s immigration problems. These problems had enduring repercussions for her feelings of national identity and ultimately forced her out of the UK. Mary’s story illustrates how an increasingly pervasive and cruel immigration system ripples out to affect wider British society, with implications for us all.
Deportability and the Family report
A report launched this month by the Universities of Bristol and Birmingham outlines qualitative research into the impact of changing family, deportation and Article 8 policies on mixed-nationality families in the UK. In-depth interviews were conducted with 30 couples consisting of British citizens and “deportable” men, along with interviews with legal, state and NGO practitioners, and observation of deportation and other appeals. Two thirds of the couples had (British) children together.
In many ways the families were extremely diverse. The men all had precarious residence and were at risk of forced removal but represented a wide range of nationalities, legal positions and immigration statuses. Some were in the asylum system or on time-limited visas; others had overstayed visas or were facing deportation as foreign national offenders. Their British partners included disadvantaged and underprivileged women as well as home-owning professionals.
Despite their diversity, the families were united by experience. They all faced significant and wide-ranging harm as the result of one member’s precarious immigration status. This included British citizens, even though they were not subject to the immigration system themselves. The whole family faced chronic uncertainty, financial deprivation and the ongoing threat of either being separated or forced to leave the UK. The British citizens lost money and jobs, developed mental and physical health problems and felt unable to envisage a future. Children’s behaviour, mental health, education, financial security and feelings of Britishness and safety are significantly affected.
Mary’s husband had lived in the UK since he was a teenager but had no visa or application outstanding when they met. He was picked up during a workplace raid whilst they were planning their marriage. After a traumatic and violent period in immigration detention, and despite Mary’s best efforts, he was removed from the UK. The Home Office told Mary to choose between staying in the UK alone or leaving to be with him. She chose the latter:
I just said stuff it, if England don’t want me to live here, I will live in any country in the world with him, and that is it.
I interviewed Mary in her almost-empty flat, days before she left the UK. We talked amongst boxes as she packed up her life, having sold most of her possessions to raise money. Mary described the UK as “the country that I did love so much”. But her identity, national pride and understanding of citizenship had been dramatically reconfigured by her husband’s treatment and the indifference shown to her rights and relationship choices.
As with other interviewees, Mary was made sicker, poorer and more unhappy by her husband’s treatment by the immigration system. British citizens described this harm as extreme and state-sponsored, experiencing it as betrayal and rejection, leaving them disenfranchised from their citizenship.
It is like your heart has been ripped out of your chest and thrown on the ﬂoor and stamped on by the British government.
Citizenship and belonging
Their partner’s immigration battles (often long, expensive and antagonistic) undermines citizens’ own sense of belonging in the UK. Interviewees spoke of high levels of state intrusion and of being routinely disbelieved, judged and sometimes humiliated by immigration officials. People’s feelings of rights and security are especially shaken by being advised to leave their own country.
The effect is an undermining of people’s trust in the state and feelings of estrangement from their citizenship. Interviewees spoke of being unimportant to the government, unable to “practice my citizenship” and no longer “proud” of being British. As Mary said:
I’ve lost all faith in my government, how they treat us. How can my government do this to me?
Hierarchies of citizenship
The research illustrates how immigration controls not only discipline migrants, but also the citizens close to them. It does so in ways that expose the internal hierarchies and conditionalities of citizenship.
Some of the citizens interviewed started acting in ways more reminiscent of precarious migrants than secure citizens. One woman lived with her suitcases packed in case she had to flee; others lay awake fearing immigration dawn raids or panicked at the sight of immigration vans. One British-born woman carries her passport with her everywhere in case of identity checks.
Equality is central to the theory of citizenship, but in practice belonging and membership are contested and ambiguous. It remains the case that Britons’ ability to exercise their citizenship rights, such as marry and live with the person of their choice, is gendered, classed and racialised. As Mary asks,
Why is my government doing this to me? Because I’m poor?
The project report was launched in June 2021 at a webinar co-hosted with the charity Bail for Immigration Detainees and chaired by Shami Chakrabati. Speakers included Sonali Naik QC from Garden Court Chambers and Ace Ruele, a London-born actor and father who is being threatened with removal from the UK. The video of the webinar is below.
To download the report and other policy and academic outputs, see the project webpage.
This article, like the report, was written with Dr Candice Morgan-Glendinning.