Back in 2015, Theresa May’s department, the Home Office, had an idea. What if schools withdrew places for children if they came from families found to be living in the country illegally? And what if schools themselves carried out immigration checks?
The suggestion came to light through a leak to the BBC. If the idea had become policy, it would have effectively forced children who might have been born in the UK to go to the schools everyone else shunned, because of the status of their parents.
In fact, the idea was reportedly rebuffed, after Education secretary Nicky Morgan predicted outrage. She was right – the leak has provoked widespread condemnation.
Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner calling it “chilling”. She told The Staggers: “Punishing innocent children for the ‘sins’ of their fathers in this way, really is beyond the pale.
“What will they think of next? Withholding hospital treatment for a child with meningitis? What other public services can be barred to people from other countries?”
In fact, the drive to cut immigration is already creeping into essential services. It is the conclusion of a distinction that right-wing politicians and newspapers have been drawing for some time.
A hidden housing crisis
The news about school places broke on the day it became a criminal offence for landlords to rent homes to tenants who they suspect of being illegal immigrants. When a softer version of this policy was first introduced under the Coalition government in 2013, it was framed as a way to prevent rogue landlords exploiting vulnerable migrants. Now, that pretence at welfare has all but been dropped.
This policy is problematic in two ways. It places the burden of responsibility of private landlords and letting agents, untrained in the arts of border enforcement. Since there is already a demand for rented properties, it is easier for them to ignore anyone with a complicated immigration status, or indulge in plain old racial discrimination.
A study by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants found that under the existing Right to Rent rules, 42 per cent of landlords are unlikely to rent to someone without a British passport, and more than 25 per cent would be less likely to rent to someone with a foreign name or accent.
Second, if illegal immigrants are unable to rent legally, where do they go? In its 2015 evaluation of the pilot Right to Rent scheme in Birmingham, the Home Office itself noted six out of thirteen representatives from community organisations reported that it led to people becoming homeless.
And far from preventing beds in sheds, the report noted that some landlords and letting agents “felt that the more exploitative end of the sector could increase as a result of Evaluation of the Right to Rent scheme, as immigrants unable to provide the required documents might be channelled into this part of the private rental sector.”
A healthcare divide
Along with “benefits scroungers”, right-wing newspapers have zeroed in on “health tourists” supposedly taking advantage of the NHS (the fact migrants tend to be able-bodied taxpayers is less commented upon).
In England, overseas patients do not have to pay for access to GPs, although non-EU immigrants must pay a healthcare surcharge worth £150 or more. But the responsibility for policing what patients are and are not entitled to is increasingly falling on doctors. The Department for Health is already trialling a scheme where patients are asked to show their passport before getting hospital care.
Dr Steve Mowle from the Royal College of GPs told The Staggers his organisation had consistently opposed proposals to charge some patients for GP access: “It is not – and must not become – our role to act as border patrol, or make decisions as to who is and who is not entitled to our care.”
Ensuring the NHS remains accessible is not just a matter of principle. “Barriers do exist – perceived or otherwise – that might deter vulnerable groups, such as refugees, from seeking medical assistance, and this is very regrettable,” Mowle said. “The last thing we want is for patients to suffer – and be living in the community with potentially contagious diseases – because they are scared to, or can’t afford to, access healthcare.”
The makings of an underclass
Every time the government draws up an immigration policy which steps outside the normal boundaries of border control, there will no doubt be a justification. After all, to a large section of voters, it may seem strange that “illegals”, as they see them, are benefiting from public services. But add all these policies up, and a more sinister picture emerges.
If someone finds all their legal avenues to everyday life closed off, they may indeed leave the country. But, if the United States is anything to go by, it seems equally probable they will simply disappear, into a network of rogue landlords, exploitative employers and no healthcare. Their children will grow up afraid of authority, invisible in the country that is their only home.
“At a time when the government claims to be concerned about integration, about cracking down on rogue landlords, traffickers and slave masters, it is shocking that it is pursuing a set of hostile immigration policies that seems almost custom made to give those people more power,” said Chai Patel, the legal and policy director at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. He described May’s attitude as “deeply concerning”.
Shadow education secretary Rayner, too, is worried May is creating “an American-style sub-culture” of the dispossessed. “It’s not the British way,” she told The Staggers. “We are a welcoming, island race which is open and always looks outward.”
Another Labour front bencher, shadow Home secretary Diane Abbott, believes the focus on immigration is a sign of weakness.
“There are two failures at work,” she said. “The first is on the economy, where the Institute for Fiscal Studies says this government and its predecessor will have presided over the worst outcome for living standards since the 1920s.
“The second failure is on immigration policy itself. Every clampdown is met with climbing immigration numbers. The second policy is meant as a distraction from the first.”
In fact, as the leak on schools shows, the more May’s track record comes under scrutiny, the more her suspicion of immigration seems genuine. Yet not so long ago, the economic or public good argument won out. Post-Brexit, though, the former draconian Home secretary has been handed a mandate for immigration control. And now she is in the driving seat.