It is a curious fact that British law is presently designed to criminalise the diligence and dedication of those individuals who most obviously wish to work in its economy.
Almost by definition, no demographic group can be as desperate to receive the opportunity of paid labour as those who risked death to get here. They arrive in freezer vans, under high-speed trains, or on cargo ships. Seeking not just sanctuary but work, they inhabit a shadow economy ruled by corruption, fear and dislocation. And yet they do so tirelessly, earning paltry sums and sending what pittance of a disposal income they have back to families abroad.
We do not, and cannot, know exactly how many illegal immigrants live in Britain. A common estimate is half a million, of which two-thirds are likely failed asylum seekers; a similar proportion lives in London and the south east.
What we do know, through the work of think-tanks and community organisers, is where they are and where they work. We know they work largely in catering, hospitality, construction and cleaning, and that they generally prefer to work at night. We know many have been here for years, some putting down roots as teachers, pastors or nurses. We know long-term residents often have children at their local school.
We know that nationality binds them: Ghanaians and Cameroonians pick litter on the tube; Romanians live in East London, employing their friends as plumbers; Nigerians clean toilets in the City. We know, too, that because these people have no papers certifying their right of residence, they are viciously exploited by their employers. They cannot claim holiday or sick leave, and their pay and conditions are subject to incessant and abrupt changes.
And we know, too, that they are criminals: ruthless law-breakers who, in the finest tradition of illegality, feel not a sliver of repentance. That they are glad to have broken the law, and that they live in daily fear of being discovered, tells us something about how they view the alternatives open to them.
To ignore all this in formulating law is both immoral and immature. What are we to do, then, with this vast (albeit illegal) army of enterprisers and entrepreneurs?
In a piece I commissioned for The Independent last September, Anthony Browne, the new Policy Director for the Mayor of London, who is shortly to publish a pamphlet arguing in favour
of an amnesty, observed that there are three policy responses. In order of desirability, these are: grant an amnesty, accept the status quo, attempt mass deportation.
The last of these has never been achieved on the requisite scale in peacetime, let alone war. It is impracticable, and deeply inhumane, necessitating as it would scenes in which ambassadors
of officialdom wrench unsuspecting children from homes and classrooms.
The status quo leaves a hugely talented, competent and committed portion of the workforce to languish in a criminal underworld. Apart from the social costs of breeding suspicion and mistrust, there is a huge economic loss in productivity, in potential tax receipts, and in the stifling of unknowable innovations.
Which leaves an amnesty. Two arguments are proffered against it: first, that it would reward criminality; second, that it would encourage more immigration. To the second, I say: fine – so long as it is intelligently managed, immigration to the UK should be encouraged. In any case it is reducing sharply, and emigration increasing, as the country enters a deep recession.
To the first argument: yes, it is wrong to allow law-breaking to go unpunished. In the US, where both presidential candidates pledged to offer an amnesty to an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, a one-off fine will be imposed as punishment.
Under Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrats became the only mainstream UK political party radical and reasonable enough to have adopted this as policy. But that distinction may not last: on April 9th 2008, under pressure from London Citizens, the capital’s largest community organisation, Boris Johnson adopted the ‘Strangers into Citizens’ campaign, which stipulates strict criteria by which immigrants can earn their regularisation.
I am told that Dominic Grieve, Conservative shadow Home Secretary, is less hostile to an amnesty than David Davis, his bruising predecessor. And given the deep influence Browne has within Tory circles – he is widely tipped to run Cameron’s Downing Street operation – his forthcoming pamphlet could form the outline of new Tory policy.
The emergence of a pragmatic case for an amnesty may yet overshadow Clegg’s earlier bravery and prescience. But if it helps bring this army of decent, industrious ghosts out of the shadows and into the limelight, so be it.