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The Home Office is pushing a foolhardy immigration bill that will, among other things, charge foreign students a premium to access NHS care as well as introduce new requirements for British citizens to do the UKBA’s bidding.

British immigration policy has already done quite enough do discourage foreign students, who already pay much higher tuition than their British/EU counterparts. And even if the new policies are designed to discourage irregular migration, they have the effect of creating a hostile and unwelcoming atmosphere for migrants of all kinds (including those who might help to lift the UK from its 18th position in the world competitiveness rankings). The degree to which these policies conflate several analytically distinct migrant categories shows just how blind the Home Office is to human rights and economic strategy as it pursues the much-publicized net migration cuts.

Requiring students to pay £200 to access the health service is a bad idea for many reasons; here are two:

'Shall we grab a pint and some free dialysis?'


First: public health. Thrifty and cash-poor as students tend to be, the price tag will make students resist seeking medical attention even when they know they should, which threatens their own well-being and that of the community at large. (The same argument also applies to irregular migrants, whose access to the NHS would be further restricted by immigration status checks.)

Second, students tend to be young and infrequent users of health services. The urgency with which Ms May aims to address this problem evokes an image of international students as some kind of gaunt and hunched-over horde of healthcare carpetbaggers, which is hardly how the UK should be characterising a £17 billion export industry. If, as critics claim, there is a problem with many student visa recipients not being genuine students, then a £200 healthcare surcharge is a feeble way to address it.

Now to that other, very different group of people affected by these ham-fisted measures – the unauthorised immigrants. My contention here is not that Britain should swing open its hospital doors to just anyone who might fancy a new knee or two. It’s not so unreasonable to tie some restrictions on non-emergency care to immigration status. What this bill does, however, is pumps that ragged immigrant straw man’s face full of expensive British taxpayer-funded Botox. Let’s not forget that, overall, immigrants contribute more than they take, and that to thrive in the globalised 21st century will require a whole lot more innovative approach than to exorcise the immigrant demons from this small and remote island. (Who better than migrants, arriving with nothing but the drive to build a better life, to create something of value?)

And we should also remember that it is absolutely unfair – indeed, it is immoral and destructive – to require members of a society to cast suspicion upon anyone they wish to engage with. The UKBA, either through ineptitude or because of the insurmountable difficulty (and futility) of the task, is diffusing its enforcement responsibility by requiring doctors, professors, banks, employers, and now even landlords to act as border agents. Citizens should have the right to choose for themselves whom they wish to associate with, and should not be put in a position of vigilante authority over anyone they just may wish to harass or exclude. This devolvement of immigration authority creates a toxic and tribalistic axis of subordination in which different people have different rights, and those with more rights are encouraged to treat those with fewer rights accordingly.

This is where Emerson’s insights come in so powerfully. In ‘The Fugitive Slave Law’ (1851, and again in different form in 1854), Emerson notes the insidiousness of the state using everyday citizens as enforcement mechanisms.

“The last year has forced us all into politics”, he writes. “I have lived all my life in [Massachusetts], and never had any experience of personal inconvenience from the laws, until now".

The law to which he refers required law enforcement officials in northern states to arrest and return to their owners anyone suspected of being a runaway slave. It also made the provision of food or shelter to runaway slaves a punishable offense, to the tune of six months in prison and a $1,000 fine. It criminalised a natural human inclination towards compassion, and for all free citizens made suspicion a prerequisite for engagement.

To be clear, the condition of irregular migrants is not to be confused with that of slavery, although the mockery often made of human rights in the tabloids is disconcerting. I simply mean to observe that more and more British citizens are being turned into enforcement agents for the Home Office, and that should give everyone pause – both because of the erosion it causes to the freedom, openness and cohesiveness of a society, as well as the hostility it creates towards many of the people who make British cities the lively and metropolitan world capitals they are.

As Emerson described it, the Fugitive Slave Law “required me to hunt slaves, and it found citizens in Massachusetts willing to act as judges and captors”. How were Emerson and his contemporaries to know whether someone they met happened to be considered another man’s property? Absent any regularised system of documentation and verification, inquisition was the only viable option. A regularised system, as it became clear, was unnecessary; all that was needed was a handful of those who are always all too willing to appoint themselves arbiters of belonging. Put simply, if exclusion in a society is legitimised at an official level, you are likely to find, as Emerson did, citizens willing and eager to help.

If you watch the BBC interview, May stumbles when asked how GPs and landlords are supposed to know whether people are illegal immigrants. And that’s the wickedness of the subtext here: it’s obvious that the complexity of the immigration system is far beyond what the average citizen can be expected to adjudicate, which means that many landlords instead will rely on intuition—and in all likelihood on prejudice—to judge for themselves whether it appears someone does or does not belong. The Home Office might also open a helpline.


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