She has a name. Isabella Acevedo is the Colombian cleaner who had worked for former Immigration Minister Mark Harper since April 2007, and whose status as an undocumented migrant prompted his resignation last weekend. Since then, she has mostly been referred to in the media as the “illegal immigrant” in a political scandal, her story lost in a well-worn media narrative that criminalises the undocumented.
David Cameron has expressed his hope for Harper to return to the Front Bench in due course, but Ms Acevedo’s future is less certain. What is her story? How did she come to be an undocumented migrant? Research shows that as a result of complex employment and immigration laws, questions of legality are not as black and white as often suggested. In Ms Acevedo’s case, we may never know; her situation is now, according to Harper, a “matter for immigration enforcement” – a terse phrase that doesn’t convey anything of the upheaval experienced by those facing possible deportation.
We may not know much about her, but one thing is certain: the language that has been used to describe her is dehumanising. A person cannot be inherently illegal, though they can be engaged in illegal activities – a distinction acknowledged by the Associated Press when they updated their Style Book last year. This may seem like semantics, but the words we use can influence public perceptions of a group of people. Last year, the Migration Observatory found the most common descriptor of immigrants across all newspaper types (tabloid, broadsheet and mid-market) was “illegal”, while for asylum seekers, the descriptor was “failed”. Given those limiting images, it’s not surprising then to see how easy it is for migrants to be the scapegoats for everything from unemployment to the lack of housing and NHS cuts.
Public attitudes towards migrants take on more significance when you consider that when the new Immigration Bill becomes law, some members of the public, in their capacity as landlords or GPs, for example, will soon be expected to perform immigration status checks on others – much like Mark Harper did. And his experience shows the challenges of expecting untrained citizens to act as border agents.
In his resignation letter, Harper stressed that employers and landlords are to “carry out reasonable checks and take copies of documents”, and they aren’t required “to be experts or spot anything other than an obvious forgery.” But if the Immigration Minister couldn’t get to grips with Ms Acevedo’s immigration status, how can he expect other members of the public to serve as de facto border agents?
A migrant myself, I have been in five different visa categories, some of which overlapped or don’t exist anymore. The immigration system is hard enough to navigate when you are in it, let alone if you know nothing about it. Perhaps some landlords would be tempted to avoid the hassle and risk of falling foul of the law by not letting to people whom they consider to be migrants. This concern is not unfounded. An undercover investigation by BBC’s Inside Out programme in October 2013 found routine discrimination against Black people in the private rental market. The UN Refugee Agency has warned that landlords, GPs and banks will find it difficult to interpret people’s immigration status, and that the measures could stigmatise foreigners and create a "climate of ethnic profiling" , as people discriminate against those they consider most likely to be migrants. It’s not hard to see how these and other measures could eventually lead to the introduction of identity cards for British citizens.
There are a number of problematic measures in the Immigration Bill, all supposedly aimed at making the UK a “hostile environment” for undocumented migrants - who, like Ms Acevedo, are too often portrayed through a simplistic, binary lens of legal and illegal immigration. The reality of people’s lives, and irregular migration, is much more complex.