Anthony Browne: Why we should grant illegal immigrants an amnesty

At present we have the worst of all worlds in turning a blind eye to them

Related Topics

Like many attractive places to live, Britain has a problem with illegal immigration. But while there has been endless debate about how to reduce the flow of illegal immigration, there has been very little discussion of the far more politically and morally fraught issue of how to respond to illegal immigrants already living here.

With porous borders, Britain has built up a large stock of illegal immigrants, including those who entered illegally and those who entered legally but overstayed their visas. Estimates range from around 400,000 to a million, and they are concentrated in London and the south-east. Many have been here a very long time. There are three policy responses to this – engage in a mass deportation, accept the status quo, or have an amnesty.

Policy makers are usually in denial about it, but there is simply no prospect of a mass deportation of illegal immigrants. There is a very powerful moral case for not deporting people who have successfully settled here – no country that sees itself as civilised wants to send immigration officials into schools, yanking distraught children away from their distressed classmates. Deportations are also incredibly time consuming and expensive, making it difficult for the Government to meet even its comparatively modest deportation targets.

Should we then just leave the status quo? This is what politicians tend to find most convenient, but it is not cost free. Living without legal status obviously creates huge problems for the migrants themselves, but there is also a cost on wider society. Strong, integrated communities are the building blocks of a successful country, but they are undermined if there is a large section of the population unable to fully participate.

The third option is the political dynamite known as an amnesty. This is often viewed through an economist's lens, since regularising migrants is likely to mean they will both pay more tax and claim more benefits. However, the precise short-term fiscal impact of an amnesty misses the far more important impact on long-term productivity.

Anyone with even the vaguest belief in free markets must accept that it is economically damaging to have a legal impediment to a large section of the population freely entering the labour market to do the jobs they are best capable of doing. Regularising the status of illegal immigrants would without doubt improve their economic productivity, and boost GDP.

There are two other arguments being made against an amnesty: firstly, that it is a moral hazard, and secondly, that it would be counterproductive. Many believe that as a point of principle, no law-breaking should be rewarded. It is a good principle, but should be applied carefully. There are many archaic laws still on the statute that no court would seek to uphold. And likewise, if the state has simply failed to uphold its immigration laws for a long period of time and let someone live in peace in Britain for many years, the reality of the situation should outweigh a moral point about not rewarding law breaking.

Then there is the danger that an amnesty might be counterproductive because it would send out a message to the world that all you need to do is arrive illegally and you will eventually be legalised. Spain and Italy have indulged in one-off amnesties, encouraging more illegal immigrants to try their luck. But this fear wouldn't be founded if the amnesty is introduced by a government that is already clamping down on illegal immigration.

A one-off amnesty might be politically more sellable, but it wouldn't help reach a long-term settlement of this issue. What would be far better would be to introduce a permanent earned amnesty for those who have been in the country a long time. In fact, Britain already has a long residency concession for illegal immigrants who have been in Britain and making an economic contribution for 14 years.

This, however, is far too long to make much of a difference, and only a few thousand a year take advantage of it. It should be reduced dramatically and the restrictions on it scaled back, giving the right to reside and work to illegal immigrants who have not been imprisoned for criminal offences and who have lived in the UK for seven years at first, and then gradually reducing it.

At present, we have the worst of all worlds, turning a blind eye to illegal immigration, but making it impossible for illegal immigrants to regularise their status. Doing more to enforce immigration law, while accepting the reality that there are long term illegal immigrants who have settled well, would be far fairer, better for society and more economically efficient. All we need is for policy makers to accept reality.

Anthony Browne is director of the Policy Exchange think-tank

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

Read Next

i Editor's Letter: Our representatives must represent us

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
MP David Lammy would become the capital’s first black mayor if he won the 2016 Mayoral election  

Crime, punishment and morals: we’re entering a maze with no clear exit

Simon Kelner
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot