Austen Ivereigh: True British citizens in all but name

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We need new words. "Illegal immigrants" barely describes the 500,000-odd people who have been in the UK for many years – the ones who work in our offices, pay taxes, serve the community and worship in our churches, yet are not recognised by the law. Some are "failed" asylum-seekers who waited eight years on a decision, and by the time it came through had no home to go back to. Or they came to study in Britain and have spent years paying taxes and doing well.

Many have put down roots and are not going back, nor will they be forcibly removed: at the current rate it would take 25 years to remove them and be economic madness to try. It is common sense to most people that long-term migrants should be able – after proving themselves – to acquire the rights that others enjoy in the UK.

Strangers into Citizens suggests that a person who has been here for four years or more could apply for a two-year work permit, at the end of which, if they meet certain criteria, they should be given leave to remain.

The measure pays for itself many times over in a tax bonanza, while clearing the asylum logjam and liberating thousands from a dehumanising limbo. Nearly 100 MPs have signed an early day motion endorsing the idea.

The Government objects that such a move weakens our borders and will pull in more illegal immigrants: yet the evidence from Spain – where illegal immigration has fallen since it regularised 700,000 long-term migrants two years ago – shows the opposite.

Along with border-tightening measures, regularisation shrinks the shadow economy on which illegal immigration feeds, allowing police to focus on people-traffickers and criminals rather than bright young newcomers such as Damilola Ajagbonna

Austen Ivereigh is co-ordinator of the Strangers into Citizens campaign.