We started the week with an announcement that exceptional talent would be expanded and that more new immigration rules would come into force on 20 February 2020.
Then we had the release of the MAC report and further insight into what the UK immigration system might look like a year from now.
We end with departure day, the reality that we are really leaving the EU still just sinking in and our post-Brexit future looming uncertainly on the horizon.
It’s been one of those weeks.
One of those weeks where immigration news hovers at the top of the headlines. One of those weeks where you are reminded of just how divided the country has become, on this topic particularly. One of those weeks where you forget there was a time when claiming the job title ‘immigration lawyer’ didn’t immediately plunge you into a conversation about whatever madness was going on at Westminster.
It feels like we’ve had a lot of ‘those weeks’ over the last four years and I don’t see much respite in our immediate future as we negotiate our long term exit from the EU and the Government plans our future immigration system.
This isn’t a Brexit blog to inform you about what will happen next. It isn’t a blog about the importance of applying for settled status (although EU citizens absolutely should and we’ve got some advice on that here). And it isn’t a blog to say goodbye to free movement (as that will continue under the transition until 31 December 2020).
It is simply a moment to reflect.
The role immigration plays in our society and our politics has clearly been a pivotal issue throughout the last four years. It was weaponised in the closing days of the Brexit referendum. It has been used to hamstring the possibility of a different kind of Brexit in the months and years since (the UK’s refusal to entertain any further free movement constraining our options to stay within the single market and the myriad benefits that brings). And if we are to judge future intentions on past behaviour, the opening acts of our new Government – to amend the Withdrawal Agreement Bill to limit the ability of child refugees to enjoy family reunion and to prevent EU citizens having the reassurance of a physical document confirming their status - suggests that focus on immigration is far from over.
While demonisation of immigration has continued apace, the last four years have also shown the heartbreaking consequences of fixating on a politics of hostility in this arena as the floodgates opened on the stories of the Windrush Generation and the appalling treatment they have suffered within the hostile environment. While steps have been taken to try and address the challenges faced by the Windrush Generation, serious questions remain about the framework which allowed the disaster to unfold and the risks this may pose to EU citizens in the future.
The Conservative manifesto acknowledged that ‘our society has been enriched by immigration and we will always recognise the contribution of those who have helped build our public services, businesses, culture and communities’. These words on their own could represent an intention to change the narrative around immigration, to embrace the possibility that the ‘enduring beliefs that unite us are far more important than our differences’. I want to believe that tomorrow could mark the opportunity to honestly embrace this new way of thinking.
However, such words seem at odds with a Government who continue to deride free movement from the EU as ‘low skilled and cheap labour’. They seem hollow in the absence of any substantive effort to reverse the hostile environment (beyond changing the semantics to refer to it as the ‘compliant environment’). And they expose the carelessness of a Government who are determined to pursue a restricted immigration system even if that means shortages of key talent.
The days and weeks which follow today’s departure from the EU will shape the role immigration plays in the future of the UK. It will undoubtedly be one of the more contentious topics for debate in the coming months. For those of us who believe that immigration really has enriched our society, we must challenge the Government to recognise this fact with more than simply words as we transition away from free movement. And where they fail to do so, we must continue to call them out.