Offer amnesty to end hostile environment

The Conservatives finally published their immigration white paper before the Christmas break, setting out their vision of how immigration policy would work after Brexit. 

The Lib Dem response was robust and clear, setting out redlines on scrapping the net migration target, limiting immigration detention and lifting the working ban on asylum seekers to name a few. But our approach to the estimated one million population of illegal migrations living and working in the UK seemed to be lacking a strong, decent and Liberal solution.

Windrush, after Brexit, was the biggest story of 2018. A mixture of insidious ideological incompetence and plain old human error married into a scandal so profound in its naked injustice that it has fundamentally changed the conversation on immigration. Britain is ready to be bold, generous and decent. We are ready to treat people as individuals, not statistics on the front of the Daily Mail.

In 2010, we ran on a platform advocating for – what was dubbed – an amnesty to illegal migrants in the UK who fulfilled time and behaviour-based criteria. If you’d been here for a decade and held no criminal record, then you would be granted a path to citizenship. 

I’ve always been proud of this policy because, at a time when the Tories and Labour were locked in an immigration-rhetoric arms race, it showed that we looked at the reality of illegal migration, were prepared to say potentially unpopular things and do what was right. I was disappointed when we dropped the policy during the Coalition. I presume this was more out of political realism – amnesty for illegal migrants may have been too much decency for the Tories to swallow – rather than a change in our basic values.

The amnesty policy essentially resets the clock on migration. It confronts the real issues that we simply do not know who is living in our country and that we are knowingly leaving almost a million people to the mercy of rogue landlords and employers. The amnesty sets out our belief boldly and confidently that if you live here, work here and play by the rules then you and your family have a right to the long-term safety and security that British citizenship offers.

At a time when we are being asked to think big, to demand better for everyone in this country, a reworking of our amnesty policy – perhaps even a more generous and less apologetic one – could help us in carving out a truly Liberal platform. Watching Jeremy Corbyn and Dianne Abbott pull themselves apart via mental gymnastics over this would also perfectly outline why Labour cannot be trusted as much as the Tories on immigration.

When the White Paper returns to the House, I believe that our objection to the path this government is taking will only be strengthened by showing we are the party with big ideas and big hearts. Let the old parties battle over who wants to make life most difficult for foreigners. We want to make their lives and our country better. 

Let’s properly put an end to the hostile environment. Let people who live here actually live here. 

* James Cox is an Oxford Liberal Democrat member, Director of Zero Suicide England, a Liberal Democrats for Seekers of Sanctuary exec member, and has a Master’s degree in Public Policy. He is currently training at the University of Oxford to be an English teacher.

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This entry was posted in News and Op-eds.


  • Richard Underhill 31st Dec '18 - 5:18pm

    Such a process already exists and is used from time to time. It started by recognising that someone who had been in the UK for 14 years could/should not be removed from the UK.
    It was legally a concession in the name of a senior civil servant (he plays bridge) but was written into the Immigration Rules as secondary legislation during the Blair-Brown governments.
    The quality of evidence was often poor, for instance a pay statement from Sainsbury’s for one week, lacking a National Insurance number, etcetera and breaching other rules, such as documents should be originals, not copies.

  • Peter Hirst 1st Jan '19 - 1:39pm

    My only issue with this is that if migrants came here illegally there should be some sort of penalty for doing that; perhaps a fine so that it does not encourage future similar occurrences.

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