Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrat party favour an amnesty for people illegally in Britain, but both Labour and the Conservatives suggest it would actually make the problem worse.
BBC Home Affairs correspondent Daniel Sandford has written an interesting article which asks ‘Is an amnesty the answer’?
Nobody really knows how many “irregular migrants” there are in the UK, but one recent estimate by the London School of Economics put it at 618,000 – within a range of 417,000 to 863,000.
The Liberal Democrats say it is now time to “regularise” those who have been here longest, so they can integrate into the legal economy and contribute to the exchequer by paying taxes.
They are calling it an “earned route to citizenship”, but they also say they have no idea how many people would qualify.
Their manifesto says: “We will allow people who have been in Britain without the correct papers for 10 years, but speak English, have a clean record and want to live here long-term to earn their citizenship. This route to citizenship will not apply to people arriving after 2010.”
Probed further, party officials tell me that those who qualify will then have to serve a probationary period of two years during which they would have to work and pay taxes.
Then they would have to pay a fee or do voluntary service as “penance” to qualify for full citizenship.
Would an amnesty work?
Such amnesties have been tried before.
Researchers at the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society at the University of Oxford have looked at previous studies, in particular ones of a United States amnesty in 1986.
They found that “almost all show that the large-scale amnesty implemented in 1986 has not reduced, and has in fact increased, undocumented migration to the US, since it established new migration flows due to networks and family ties”.
A total of 2.7m qualified for the amnesty in 1986. By 2000 there were an estimated 9.3m illegal immigrants living in the United States.
Meanwhile, Spain had six amnesties in 20 years. In that time the illegal population rose from 44,000 to 700,000 – a 15-fold increase.
However, the Liberal Democrats argue there is no link between the amnesties and the later rise in the number of illegal immigrants entering the two countries.
In fact, leader Nick Clegg told Reality Check it was far better to be “smart about this” and get such immigrants “out of the shadows” and into the hands of the tax man.
He also questioned how illegal immigrants could be deported when the authorities didn’t know where they lived.
Tougher laws wanted
But what is clear is the Liberal Democrats are sticking their neck out on this. A recent opinion poll by Ipsos-MORI suggested that 65% of the population want tougher immigration laws , against just 4% who want the laws relaxed.
Some of the party’s policies do involve tightening up rules. For example they want to immediately re-introduce exit checks – or embarkation controls – on everyone leaving the country.
But there are other relaxations too, like allowing asylum seekers who are still awaiting a decision on their case to take up employment.
The Liberal Democrats say the other parties simply do not have policies to deal with the large numbers of people living in the UK without proper papers.
They also say honesty is their best policy and they point out that in polling immediately after last week’s TV debate, Mr Clegg was scoring higher on immigration than Tory leader David Cameron.
Immigration Matters Comment
The Liberal Democrats are the only main party willing to face this problem squarely and honestly.
Up to now most would argue that Nick Clegg can afford to have radical policies because he has no chance of gaining power and ever implementing them.
But following Nick Cleggs performance during last week’s first televised election debate and the subsequent leap in popularity of the Lib Dems and the possibility of a hung Parliament, all this could have changed.
Labour has ruled out an amnesty, but has introduced a number of ‘concessions’ in the past, which are effectively an amnesty by another name, such as the recent ‘legacy cases’ scheme for asylum seekers.
There is already a 14 year concession whereby a person who has been in the UK illegally for more than 14 years can apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR). The number of years needed to qualify under this scheme could be reduced to include more overstayers.
A full scale amnesty would hardly be a vote winner but whoever forms the next government will have to deal with the issue of how to deport up to a million overstayers and illegal immigrants.
Based on figures of finding a removing 500,000 illegal immigrants, leading think tank, ippr, says it would take 20 years and cost £5 billion.
What’s your view? Will an amnesty make things better or worse?