On 9 June 2011, Immigration Minister Damian Green set out a proposal to abolish the link between temporary migration and permanent settlement in the United Kingdom. Specifically, the Home Office intends to reclassify visas as temporary and permanent for workers outside of the EEA. Most current work/study visas would fall under temporary; reserving permanent settlement for a select few immigrants entering with employee-sponsored and ancestry-based qualifications. The proposed changes are the latest in successively more restrictive measures to immigration policy in the United Kingdom.
Leave to remain
Currently, the United Kingdom grants a migrant working or studying a specific period of “leave to remain”, during which they are entitled to claim temporary residency. At the end of this time, a person may choose to renew their visa or switch to a more appropriate route — for example, a student or spouse seeking entitlement to work. After five years of continued residency, immigrants may then apply for “indefinite leave to remain” (ILR), provided they continue to meet the necessary skill requirements. While ILR is still a step removed from citizenship, it does grant permanent settlement in the UK and full access to state services. The aforementioned consultation seeks to define, at the onset of a visa application, which visas are temporary. Workers on temporary visas will not have the option to apply for ILR.
The previous, Labour government introduced the current tiered working visa system in 2008. It is now all but extinct. The Home Office, in the waning years of Gordon Brown, made incremental restrictions to tiered visas by increasing the skill requirements of incoming workers. Following the election of the Liberal Democrat / Conservative coalition, the government has systematically dismantled the visa system. The highest privileged working visa — the Tier 1 Highly Skilled Migrant — closed on 6 April 2011. Tier 4, the student visa, was significantly altered the same month in parallel to closing of the Tier 1 Post-study working visa.
The Home Office states that 84,000 migrants from outside the European Economic Area were granted indefinite leave to remain in 2010 via employment routes, a 17% increase from totals in 1997 (a year apparently relevant as it was the start of the three-term Labour government). Oft quoted reasons for reducing migration include the additional strain on services and loss of skilled jobs.
Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has made it clear that the United Kingdom intends to block the flow of immigrants from outside the EEA to as few people as legally possible.
We want the brightest and best workers to come to the UK, make a strong contribution to our economy while they are here, and then return home.
The Home Department addresses immigrants as “workers”. The underlying rationale is that visa holders have come to the UK to advance their work and careers. This is fair reasoning. However, the assumption that people are here only to work is deeply flawed. Green ignores the strong cultural and social ties that immigrants inevitably form. Adopted homes, however fleeting, still bind. Expecting immigrants to arrive, work for a bit then neatly pack their bags disregards the life that work is bundled within. Five years can be a lifetime of experience and learning; of friendship, of love, of cultural embrace.
The proposal makes no care for these links to community; coldly rational, it either denies the existence of friendship and possibility outside of work or expects the swift burning of bridges. Damian Green’s words amplifies an understanding that people are resources: temporary bodies to fill temporary roles.
In striking contrast, Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York, is pushing an initiative to reform immigration in the United States, acknowledging the essential role of immigrants in America’s economic and cultural growth. Bloomberg proposes more temporary and permanent working visas for highly skilled migrants, new entrepreneur visas and expanded green cards.
We will not remain a global superpower if we continue to close our doors to people who want to come here to work hard, start businesses, and pursue the American dream. The American dream cannot survive if we keep telling the dreamers to go elsewhere.
His initiative is a stark difference to the policies of the coalition government in the United Kingdom, and indeed to opinion in many parts of the United States. Yet his honesty and openness hits at a truth that many have been content to ignore. The immigration debate so often focuses on illegal persons that it rarely recognizes the economic and intellectual boon that stems from legal paths of migration. Globalization has allowed business and innovation to flourish, yet our borders are being closed to a generation of makers and thinkers.
The proposal, if passed, will come into effect in 2014. It is unclear whether immigrants already in the United Kingdom would be affected by the changes. The Home Office is keeping an open consultation until 9 September.
I did not move to the United Kingdom with the intent to settle permanently. The prospect of permanent settlement, however, is incentive for me to stay.
I have lived in this country for two years and already have a sincere appreciation for my work experience, my friends, the culture, this city. I understand how difficult it could be in one year to leave all of that behind. The same decision three years on is a choice I would hope to earn: a choice I believe all legal immigrants deserve.