amnesty for some, or papers for all?

At yesterday’s Hands Off My Workmate conference a speaker from London Citizens argued for a limited and conditional amnesty for some unregularised migrants as the only ‘pragmatic’ means of helping them settle in Britain. Similar arguments were made at a May 4th demonstration organised by London Citizens, and here we present a translation of a text distributed at that event by the Coordinadora Latinoamericana.


In a political context, the expression ‘amnesty’ means a general ‘pardon’, turning the page and forgetting the past. In the immigration context this means a ‘grace’ which certain states eventually give to allow certain immigrants meeting given conditions to be able to be regularised. In our view, the idea of amnesty must have the widest possible meaning and cover and benefit all immigrants. In other words, amnesty must mean papers for all.

The EU’s prescription for immigration

There have been two main EU debates on the matter of immigration, the first being the passing of the ‘Return Directive’ by the European Parliament in June 2008; the second, the adoption of the ‘European Pact on Immigration and Asylum’ as debated by the ministers of the European Council in July 2008.

Much has already been said about the ‘Return Directive’, but fundamentally it means a set of norms defining the processes of detaining and expelling unregularised migrants. All those people who enter the EU clandestinely, as well as those who arrive with temporary leave to remain or a tourist visa but decide to stay, are considered unregularised migrants.

The system advocates the voluntary return of the unregularised migrant as the first measure taken. The person notified of their ‘return’ order has only a few days to leave the country. If the migrant does not leave voluntarily, or if “there are well-founded arguments to believe there is a risk [the migrant] will flee”, the authorities can take them to a detention centre for a maximum period of 6 month while the legal measures to return them back to their country are processed.

If the immigrant does not co-operate, for example falsifying their country of origin or identity, their detention can be extended to a maximum of 12 months while legal measures are processed. The system prohibits the expelled immigrant from entering the European Union for up to five years.

The “European Pact on Immigration and Asylum” is an agreement designed to limit and control the flux of legal immigration, strengthen controls to prevent clandestine immigration, arrange the co-operation of Third World countries and lay the basis of asylum policy.

The spirit of the Pact is to limit and regulate legal immigration “in the service of the needs of the labour market and member states’ ability to accept migrants”. It privileges the entry of skilled labour, such as professionals and scientists, conforming to the idea of “pick-and-choose immigration”. As a condition for their regularisation, immigrants must learn the language of the country they arrive in, and grasp a basic understanding of its customs and institutions. With these measures, European governments aspire to reduce the flux of regular migrants and ensure that those who are authorised correspond to the economic and demographic needs of the countries they arrive in.

These measures were approved by the European Parliament, dominated by right-wing parties, with the support of the so-called social democratic left parties, who did not oppose these measures, given their belief that a plan for the resolution of illegal immigration cannot fail to include the state’s right to use coercion.

Such norms help reinforce the atmosphere of hostility to immigrants and, above all, are profoundly unjust towards the millions of unregularised immigrants who spend years working and integrating themselves into society, hoping for an opportunity to have their status regularised.

It is also more than clear that neither the ‘Return Directive’ nor the ‘European Pact’ have realistic answers to massive and growing numbers of immigrants. For this reason policies such as regularising a certain group of people who meet certain conditions are not, and could not be, real solutions. On the contrary, it highlights the need to work for a far-reaching, real amnesty for all immigrants with unregularised status. This means everyone wins, both the immigrants and the countries to which they migrate.

The UN’s prescription

For almost two decades the United Nations have stuck by the International Pact for the Protection of the Rights of Migrants and their Families, but up to this day these norms have not been adopted by any EU country’s parliament. These international norms set the rights and obligations of immigrants and ensure their protection in terms of respect for their human rights. The United Kingdom should sign up to this international agreement without delay.

The proposals being debated

The “London Citizens” campaign “Strangers into Citizens” is a very important initiative, but in our eyes it has set its sights too low. Firstly, we must say that the Coordinadora Latinoamericana is not against this campaign – it seems like a valid project to us – but we are convinced that the reality the large swathes of immigrants live through demands much wider measures which truly account for the vast majority of the undocumented.

“London Citizens” proposes an “amnesty” covering people who have spend 4 years or longer resident in the United Kingdom. Those people who meet this criterion must go through a two-year “probation period” – which grants permission to work – time which the beneficiaries could use to find guarantors and work references. Besides these requirements, they must pass a language test and not have committed any serious criminal offence.

These “filters” such as the time of stay in the United Kingdom, the language test, and above all, not having a “criminal record” make this initiative exclusive and ineffective, totally twisting out of shape the meaning of the word ‘amnesty’. The vast majority of undocumented workers have had no opportunity to learn English, large numbers have entered the country with false papers, many have had serious legal problems trying to access social security, many have violated traffic laws and many others have in one way or another found themselves involved in some kind of penal infraction. For the immigration authorities, all these legal matters are considered a serious criminal offence, which is why a significant layer of people would not be able to benefit from the so-called amnesty being proposed. The majority of applications to the Home Office are by family group, and if one family member has a criminal record, a common result is that the Home Office will deny the entire family’s case.

Every day hundreds and thousands of immigrants come into this country, and even if we could count how many thousands have entered in the last four years, we have to conclude that these new immigrants also have no chance of applying for this amnesty.

Many undocumented immigrants, perhaps through being ill-informed, or through lack of knowledge, believing that this is a real “amnesty”, might present their applications and then be denied. Once this decision is taken, those same immigration authorities would at once use the information submitted by the applicant to track them down, arrest them and immediately begin their deportation proceedings.

It is very difficult to be precise about the numbers of immigrants in the United Kingdom. The Home Office thinks that there are half a million people, but we believe the numbers could easily be in excess of one million. The people who could ultimately benefit from the amnesty proposed would be no more than 20% of this section of the population. Once the amnesty places were exhausted, there would follow a real “witch hunt” against this large majority remaining outside of regularised status.

If we submit to this cut-down idea of amnesty, soon we would find ourselves faced with this large majority of immigrants subject to deportation back to their respective countries of origin. We would feel a collective frustration at having supported such cut-down, limited and exclusive proposals, and thus having become the executioner of our class brothers and sisters.

We know that it is not an easy fight and that governments are little-interested in immigrants, much at odds with their economic importance, but today more than ever we must raise our demand of a real amnesty for all, a true regularisation which would benefit 100% of immigrants in this country, who arrived here with the same hopes and dreams as the rest of us. We are going on the 4th May march with our own demand “Papers for all”, demonstrating our strength and organisational capacity, and denouncing the fact that we are treated like criminals just because we do not have the right papers. Immigration is not the fault of the people who are forced to emigrate from their own countries: truly responsible are the governments of wealthy countries like the United Kingdom, the big multinationals from such countries and the economic model organised and driven by these same countries, who, without any consideration for human beings, steal from and exploit our countries of origin, condemning us to poverty.

The Coordinadora Latinoamericana appeals to all documented and undocumented workers to act as a single force, in an organised way, to demonstrate our capacity for action and demand a real amnesty for all undocumented migrants in the United Kingdom. It is time to demand it, it is time for it to be done: no longer can these countries invest vast amounts of money to help the rich and at the same time have no policy for immigrants except that of expulsion. These countries’ well-being is significantly reliant on the contributions and labour of immigrants. We are not part of the economic crisis, we are part of the solution.

6 thoughts on “amnesty for some, or papers for all?

  1. Can we also have an account of the SWP antics on the day please? I hear they put on a particularly classic performance.


  2. Yesterday SOAS played host to the ‘Hands Off My Workmate’ conference, which featured a series of discussions on the migrant workforce, racism in British society and how to resist immigration raids. SOAS had earlier this year seen a police raid on cleaning staff and series of deportations, followed by an occupation of the director’s office (which had rather mixed results –

    Given that there were four simultaneous sessions it would be hard to write a report of everything that went on. The feminisation of migrant labour session was very interesting and there was some discussion as to whether raids really are a central plan of immigration policy given the number of illegal immigrants is so high in comparison to the number deported; the amnesty session was interesting insofar as Alberto Durango, the other platform speaker and many of the audience so easily faced down the Strangers into Citizens speaker.

    Broadly speaking my characterisation would be that many discussions seemed rather abstract. For example there were repeated general expressions of support for solidarity and trade unionism to stand up for migrants but without discussion of previous organising initiatives like Justice for Cleaners, and where they fell short. The tone of the event was much at odds with the far more practical recent Campaign Against Immigration Controls day-school.

    When, at the steering meeting to organise the day (although in reality we were just presented with an already-written agenda and asked if we agreed) some people from CAIC as well as myself said that we should focus at existing campaigns and disputes, for example the Unite and Unite United Left’s failure to stand up for the Willis cleaners, the reply from the SWP was to accuse us of wanting to stir up acrimony and put off a potential ally. It seems they think the problem with the dispute is ultra-lefts being nasty to the union. For sure, of course, the SWP organisers of the conference did organise a session to condemn the Lindsey Oil Refinery strikes.

    At that meeting concerns had also been raised as to why the event was happening, to which the answer (as also aired at the recent LRC cleaners’ meeting) was that there’s lots of campaigns, so the SWP were not trying to set up some new organisation. Throughout the day there was no discussion of practical proposals, and little analysis of existing or recent disputes.

    Quelle surprise when, at the end of the plenary session, we were asked to vote on a set of plans for ‘Hands Off My Workmate’, including its new steering committee. Obviously plans + committee = an organisation, since what a committee does is organise things, and plans need to be organised for.

    In true SWP style, the proposal was: here is what we’re doing, take it or leave it. Although the committee proposed was unobjectionable in my eyes, had anyone wanted to discuss it or get a hearing, they would not have been able to…

    But then someone did suggest an amendment. We had spent the whole day arguing for getting rid of borders, and talking about why all borders are racist. Similarly we had discussed why imperialism drove migrants here, how we need to resist the scapegoating of illegal immigrants and how shameful immigration raids are. The Strangers into Citizens speaker who argued for an amnesty limited only to some migrants was trounced. So surely we should have a line in it saying ‘No-one is illegal’, to express that we oppose borders?

    Of course not. The SWP told us that people ‘out there’ wouldn’t understand it. ‘Union branches’ would not vote to back Hands Off My Workmate if it stood for no borders… (perhaps though the GMB branch for the Dog & Duck would sign up and give the campaign fifty quid if we don’t say what we mean). We can believe in our principles, but certainly we could never convince other people of them. We are the enlightened socialists, but the dark masses of the working class wouldn’t get it: much like how in Respect, the SWP told us of how Muslims wouldn’t understand why we wanted to get rid of the monarchy, so we should not mention the idea and leave them to their ignorance.

    The vote was held. 24 people for ‘No-one is illegal’. The chair counted the votes against – obviously less. “13…14…15… looks like a tie”.

    A draw! Elaine from the SWP said we should just leave the decision for some other time… but surely that would mean not having that point? And all the people interested in the campaign were already here, in the same room… Oh, go on then, another speech against the amendment then we’ll have another vote. A slim majority against no borders – funny, I thought I could count. Both the idea of having a vote on these proposals with no discussion of the purpose of the new organisation, and the execution of the vote itself, was undemocratic.

    Sandy Nichol, also from the SWP, had been apologetic. He really believes in no borders, he just couldn’t bring himself to vote for it. He claimed the left always focuses on itself, never the people ‘out there’, although I distinctly remember

    It also seems a little ‘off’ to me that while left groups like the SWP happily drop the ‘no borders’ slogan in planning their public work and agitation, on the grounds that not enough people already agree with them, they nonetheless have no compunction at all about banging on about Lenin and Trotsky all the time, when most ‘ordinary people’ also have no interest in the gods of the far left.

    The SWP do not stand for no borders. In none of their electoral fronts do they advocate no borders. Their migrant rights campaign does not stand up for no borders.

    We live in a society overwhelmed with racism and anti-immigrant hysteria. In response to the attempt to deport people to Baghdad the Daily Express printed articles claiming that Iraqis with high birth rates threatened to bring mass female circumcision to Britain. Polls consistently show that ‘send them back’ sentiment reaches far, far beyond support for the BNP.

    But despite the need to fight this argument, they duck the question. For sure, their members believe that they want to get rid of borders. Perhaps they should tell people about it.


  3. so what happened? was the No Borders thing not passed? You think the chair did a false count? did anyone challenge it?


  4. As someone else said, although the original text was unobjectionable and even laudable in a liberal kind of way, it was really good that someone suggested including the phrase ‘No one is illegal’ – after all, if we are not making it clear that we are campaigning for all workers, ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ and against a distinction that is false in a world degraded and impoverished by imperialist economics as much as by war, what is the point? I thought on the first vote it was really clear that that those FOR the amendment had the majority although bizarrely the chair – why no independent tellers? – thought it was a tie. It was also really wrong to have more speakers against the amendment than for. By the time the vote was recounted and there’d been lots of dithering, a number of people had left, so perhaps there were fewer for the amendment than against, but it was typical opportunist tactics throughout.


  5. Yes, that’s right, ‘no borders’ was rejected. I think they deliberately miscounted the vote, particularly clearly so on the first one.


  6. Dear all

    I participated in the first two thirds of the Hands Off my Workmate conference on 17 Oct, as reported on above, but couldn’t stay for the last session. I think that this discussion is really important, worth clarifying and pursuing further – in other fora as well.

    The point that was argued for inclusion in the letter was not, ‘no borders’, but ‘no one is illegal’. There is a difference in tone, perspective and content between these positions as the basis for a campaign. Example Ecuador, whose president Correa visits London next week. Ecuador has declared the right of universal citizenship, while it retains its borders and needs to in respect of aggession from Uribe, to exercise sovereignty over natural resources and so on.

    We in the Colombia Solidarity Campaign, the Latin American Workers Association and our fellow organisations in the Coordinadora Latinoamericana have mobilised in the communities arguing ‘no one is illegal’, i.e. to defend everyone in the community. This is in distinction to the machine politics of London Citizens which is definitely biased in favour of the clientelist, middle class layer that they do business with. Their sub-text is ‘some of us should be accepted as legal, the rest can go to the wall’.

    ‘No one is illegal’ is the demand coming from the militant, working class and majoritarian trend amongst immigrants – certainly from the Latin American communities.

    ‘No one is illegal’ is not a shibboleth, it is a fundamentally humanitarian democratic demand. Is it okay for the state to deport some of My Workmates if it deems them illegal? This would have been no defence for the deported SOAS cleaners. Is it okay to imprison and deport others who haven’t made it to becoming MY workmates?

    ‘No one is illegal’ is the essential complement if ‘Hands Off My Workmate’ if to be anti-racist rather than patronising. It gives voice to both sides of the alliance. Behold – my workmate has a name, a story to tell and can speak! Otherwise the voice speaking here is only that of the supposed Me of My – the legal, fully citizened worker. Remind Me again, who is this fight actually for?

    The SWP argue that for a real movement, not just a supposedly perfect form of words revolving the corners of a small room, Hands Off My Workmate serves best. We want to see a movement, yes. But one that actually fights, including against the prejudice that distinguishes between the deserving and undeserving immigrant/ Why? precisely because this is the manufactured consent on which deportations rely, as much as the armed thugs who actually carry them out.

    ‘No one illegal’ is not abstract, it concretely affirms and gives focus to the immigrant workers’ own life experiences. It seems to me that the best basis for a united front that would fight the raids and ongoing discrimination against immigrant workers is to recognise their position as immigrants as well as workers; and to encourage their voices and experiences to come to the fore and so connect as much as possible with fellow workers.

    So who are we including in this new campaign, who will drive it forward and who are its allies? It’s a question of where the priority lies. Is the democratic movement that is coming from the community to be sacrificed to a closed deal with trade union officialdom, or are we going to have some mutual respect in a democratic campaign for real? Are we going to have the same old same old, or are we going to really take a step forward this time?

    Let’s see if the SWP are big enough to take this criticism, reflect on it and admit their mistake. The SWP should correct the undemocratic machination of their members at the end of last Saturday’s conference (confirmed by reports of all independents present), and accept the majority. In my view ‘Hands Off My Workmate – No One is Illegal’ should be the basis of the campaign.

    Either way, the matter is not settled.


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