‘… this is England. This should not be happening.’
This column documents evidence of the effect of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012 and readers are invited to send in relevant information for publication. Please see below for further details.
People with irregular immigration status are often a world away from the stereotypical ‘illegal immigrant’ of tabloid imagination. Some will have lived and worked in the UK nearly all their lives, unaware of their lack of status, or their risk of deportation to a country they last saw decades ago. LAG’s ‘Chasing Status’ research aims to tell their stories. Fiona Bawdon, the journalist behind the study, explains.
Alicia1Names and other identifying details have been changed.
was nearly 16 when she first suspected she might be, in her words, ‘illegal’, after all her friends started getting their national insurance numbers. Desperate to get a Saturday job at Claire’s Accessories like her best friend, Alicia asked her mother for her passport. ‘Every time I mentioned it to my mum, she’d get angry,’ she recalls.
For Henry, the realisation came when he had been in the UK for 45 years, and a Jobcentre worker told him he ‘had no legal right to be in the country’ (see case studies). Unlike Alicia, Henry had long had both a national insurance and NHS number. Having arrived in the UK from Jamaica on his sister’s passport in 1966, he had not previously experienced any problems claiming benefits during intermittent periods of unemployment. It was only in 2011 when his payments suddenly stopped that he realised his immigration status had never been regularised.
‘Chasing Status’ interviewees told of the practical and emotional toll of discovering their lack of status. Both Alicia and another teenager, 19-year-old Amanda, found themselves subjected to teasing and bullying.
Amanda says: ‘The foster parents I used to live with, they always used to make jokes, about how I’m a little immigrant … [Immigrants] don’t go on holiday. There was always like a joke among them.’
Alicia recalls other teenagers threatening to report her to the immigration authorities: ‘“Oh, you’re an immigrant. Ha, ha!,” that started. Mean girls. Certain people in the community. Obviously, as a girl growing up, I’m confident. That was something for them to say. Like, “Mmmmm, she’ll never be able to drive.” Girls that didn’t like me started taking it up as an advantage type of thing. Like, anywhere we were, “If she says anything to me, I’ll call the police. She’s an immigrant.”’
Both described being unable to do things that their friends took for granted. Amanda was frustrated at having to defer her university place to study law for a year, while her status was sorted out.
For some of the older interviewees, the consequences were far more drastic. Sam, who had entered the UK on his uncle’s diplomatic passport in 1972, ended up street homeless, after losing his benefits. Originally from Sierra Leone, Sam says he was granted indefinite leave to remain (ILR) in 1988, but has been unable to find his passport with its all-important stamp, following a house move. Despite multiple requests, the UK Border Agency (UKBA) has been unable to find his records. The missing passport has now taken on an almost mystical quality for him.
Sam says: ‘The crisis has made me, it’s just triggered the memory, I can see nearly every page of that passport. I described [it] recently, my lawyer wrote back to UKBA. I remember saying, “You will see a black and white picture of a young man in a blazer and tie, looking melancholy.” That’s what it was, with an Afro … The ILR stamp, triangulated purple, I can see that. It’s a green passport. It even has a yellow receipt at the back. It’s there. It exists. I had it. Can’t find it.’
For people like Sam and the others, life is only likely to get tougher. The withdrawal of legal aid for immigration cases means their chances of getting expert help to resolve their situation are slim, and the stakes of having irregular status are set to get higher. In summer 2013, the government announced plans to force landlords and even GPs to check the immigration status of potential tenants and patients.
Alicia is 19 years old and came to the UK from Jamaica, age eight, to join her mother. She was subsequently taken into care. She says her mother lied to her about her lack of immigration status. She now has a two-year-old son, who is British. With the help of a legal aid solicitor, she has now been granted limited leave to remain, with no recourse to public funds, for ten years.
‘When we was in secondary school and everyone was getting a national insurance number, and I didn’t understand, why ain’t I got an NI number? … I looked it all up and went to my social worker and said, “Has there ever been a passport for me?” And she said, “No”, and I said, “I think I’m illegal”, and she said, “What?!” I said, “I think, I’m illegal!” And I told her everything that had happened and why I think I’m illegal, and she said, “Yeah, you are.”
This is so strange, when she [social worker] told me this, I couldn’t breathe: she told me, she can either go upstairs and tell her manager now, what she found out, and immediately, I could be taken to detention. They would probably get the police.
I didn’t go a day without crying. It’s all I could think about. For me, the paper [limited leave to remain] still says, you’re not existing. My social worker reminded me, that, you’re still nothing in this country, until you get that indefinite [leave to remain]. Remember that. They’ll never look at you as a normal person. Until you get that indefinite, your child will never be classed as a normal English child.’
Alan is in his forties and came to the UK in 2006, when headhunted to run an organisation. He was granted a work permit, but, after five years, was planning to apply for ILR, which coincided with his being made redundant from his job. Eventually, he managed to qualify for ILR under new rules, after using the services of a specialist immigration firm.
‘I thought, I could really use a bit of a break and there was a bit of a redundancy package, so this will be super. I’ll take a breather before I sort out my leave to remain and then I’ll get permanent residency later in the year. So it was great … My last day in the job was, I remember, April 6. April 12, give or take a day, Theresa May announced they were changing the rules for indefinite leave to remain …
It used to be when you had been in the country for five years, you could apply for indefinite leave to remain. And I had gotten to that point and was all ready to apply for it. And it was automatic … But they changed it to apply the points system … You get more points for income … but I had just given up my salary completely. There I was, living on savings. I had plenty of savings. I had sold my house back home by this stage, so I was not uncomfortable, certainly not at any risk of needing benefits or anything. But you can have £1m in cash, but it doesn’t count … So my previous history of working in the country, the money that I had in the bank, none of this made any difference at all.
I tried to get an appointment in [UKBA] Croydon but there were just no appointments for the next two years … so I ended up getting an appointment in Birmingham about two and a half months after. The interview was really heart-breaking, because after travelling all the way to Solihull and staying in a hotel the night before because I had a 7.30 appointment, and then waiting for two hours for the appointment, and having a stack of papers that I spent six months preparing, I handed the guy the papers. He took the cover letter from the lawyer, the application form itself and one of my bank statements. So he had about ten pieces of paper out of about 500 that I’d spent a huge fortune trying to get and he handed the rest back to me without even looking at them. Walked away, took photocopies of them. Came back and said, “Fine”. And that was it … They literally didn’t look at it. I could have handed them a pile of newspapers with the lawyer’s cover letter on the top. They wouldn’t even have known the difference.’
Henry is 56 years old and arrived in the UK, aged nine, from Jamaica, on his sister’s passport to join his parents. He has lived in Hackney ever since, and never been back to his home country. He was served with an eviction notice after he was left without welfare benefits for a year. He has dyslexia and finds reading difficult. With a solicitor’s help, he managed to get his benefits reinstated while he seeks to regularise his immigration status.
‘The rent start piling up. My housing association send me a letter of eviction … So, then one thing led to me going to court and I need immigrant status and because I was running around like headless chicken, going Law Centre®, going Jobcentre. Nobody seemed to point me in the right direction …
Even when I was dealing with the solicitor, I know she was trying to help, but my frame of mind was, on days, I don’t want nothing more. It was like, I don’t care what’s happening no more, but she had a way of getting me to answer the questions, so I did reply, because she said if I don’t answer the questions, she can’t help me. So I tried my best at that.
When you’re in a situation like that, there should be an outlet where you can go to and get straight information. First thing, they sent me to the Citizens Advice Bureau, but when I gave him my details, he saw the whole problem, he didn’t even want to deal with it. He sent me to the Law Centre, when I went to the Law Centre, there was no one for me to talk to, I had to use the phone. I was phoning, phoning, half an hour, no one answered. I put the phone down. I wait half an hour and phone again, phone, phone, no one answered, so I just walked out …
Well, you just want to find out what’s my legal right, because at that stage, they say I have no legal right to be in the country. One of the staff at the Jobcentre, that’s what he said, and for him to make a statement like that, that’s what pissed me off. Pardon my Dutch. He said I have no right. So, he’s made that judgment, but he’s not the one who’s higher, because every time I go there, he has to go upstairs, or wherever, to get, from whoever it is. So I say, “Let me speak to whoever is up there, then the whole issue will be sorted out,” but no one wanted to, so it wasn’t getting sorted out.’
Alan, the only interviewee to come to the UK as an adult, when he was headhunted, ended up with status difficulties because of a sudden change in the rules around ILR. Even though he was able to afford expert help, it was still an intensely fraught and difficult process. ‘I talk about the frustrations, I am fully aware that I had the most privileged possible approach to this, so my experience was just a taste of what other people deal with. It made me appreciate that other people are just in a hopeless situation.’
If Alan would have struggled without legal advice, despite having ‘several degrees and being chief executive of an international organisation’, what chance have the likes of Henry, who has dyslexia, or 56-year-old Anne Marie, whose benefits were cut off around seven years ago?
Like Henry, Anne Marie arrived in the UK as a child to join her parents. She began running into problems over her status after her original stamped Jamaican passport was destroyed in a house fire and, like Sam, the UKBA can find no record. Although unable to read or write, Anne Marie does not lack eloquence. She says: ‘I feel like, I’ll tell you, deep down, you know when you are in a court house, you sit down in a court house, and you’re waiting for the judge to say whether you are guilty or not guilty. That’s the way I feel, now. I feel I’ve been treated just like a criminal.’
Her mother, an elegant octogenarian, who has been forced to support Anne Marie from her state pension, puts it more succinctly: ‘If she didn’t have us, she would be on the street begging. I mean, this is England. This should not be happening.’