One of the familiar gripes of those opposed to immigration is that we don't talk about it; but if you're a migrant, it feels like we do little else. Early February show on Channel 5, the Big British Immigration Row, sums up everything that's wrong with the current discourse on immigration: lots of heat and very little light.
The lack of an informed debate means that a lot of issues that should get discussed and that affect everyone, not just migrants, get overlooked. Worse still, government efforts to create a "hostile environment" for irregular migrants risks driving a wedge of suspicion into communities and dragging a lot of ordinary people into a net of surveillance.
The touchstone of the strategy is the Immigration Bill, which is currently working its way through parliament. In addition to worrying provisions such as restricting access to appeals on immigration decisions, it seeks to restrict the access of irregular migrants to healthcare, private housing, bank accounts and driving licenses. What this means in practice is that ordinary people, for example landlords, will be required to act as border agents in order to conduct new checks on immigration documentation. In addition to the prospect of shutting irregular migrants out of housing and leaving them open to exploitation, this could lead to discrimination against migrants more generally too.
Another well-worn argument of those opposed to immigration is that race is no longer a factor to consider. But with the privatisation of immigration checks there is a real possibility that ethnic minority British citizens, who are more likely to be considered foreign, will also be discriminated against. To a certain extent that's already happening - BBC's Inside Out programme in October 2013 found routine discrimination against Black people by letting agents in the private rental market - a situation which will likely be exacerbated by the new regulations. Charities have raised these sorts of concerns since the Bill was first proposed, and the UN Refugee Agency has warned of the risk of creating a "climate of ethnic profiling." Unlike employers, private landlords don't have Human Resources departments to help them understand immigration documentation, so it's down to their judgment and whether they consider renting to a migrant is worth the effort - no oversight, no checks and balances.
If you think this won't affect you, it's worth considering the implications on wider society of getting citizens to monitor one another. You may not be a landlord, employer or otherwise likely to be in a position to make immigration checks on another person, but you could still be affected. In order to avoid discrimination, efficiency and common sense suggests immigration checks for all. I remember the anti-ID card campaign under Labour - roundly rejected then by the majority of the public but now creeping in through the back door. I also remember my disappointment when I learned that the campaign against ID cards had succeeded, but that ID cards would be retained for categories of migrants. Once that was established, it was only a matter of time before it was rolled out into all categories of non-EU migration. So, how long until it is recommended for everyone else?
As much as politicians try to divide communities, it's clear that when it comes to the unacceptable intrusion of immigration legislation into the private sphere, we really are all in it together. There are real concerns that people will be locked out of vital services. The nature of these changes have the potential to impact community relations, sowing the seeds for a climate of suspicion in which the assumption of criminality is the norm in such simple acts of everyday business such as opening a bank account or renting a house.
Even if you think the aims of the Bill are justified (and I for one do not), the impact will not only be felt by irregular migrants - though they are at the sharp end of this; the hostile environment will touch us all, and we have to ask if this is the sort of climate we all want to live in.
This blog is part of the Open Generation platform run by Migrants Rights Network. The platform aims to give a voice to under 30s on the issues of immigration and EU free movement. Find out more here! www.opengeneration.org.uk or follow us @opengeneration