From the NS archive: A new deal for immigrants

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In this 1967 article, writer and former New Statesman associate editor Mervyn Jones discusses the new report of the Immigrant Appeals Committee by its chairman, Roy Wilson. Jones argues that the sensational media headlines and mandatory “investigations” reflect exaggerated concerns about illegal immigration. Although Jones uses language that is insensitive by today’s standards, this article demonstrates that little has changed in the British public’s attitude towards migration. Even though Jones was pleasantly surprised to conclude that the report was “so carefully crafted and so liberal that it doesn’t feel like nitpick,” the government would not agree. Ultimately, the report’s findings would be ignored and the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1968 would be passed. The Act was intended to further limit the rights of Commonwealth citizens to migrate to the UK by denying the future right of entry they previously enjoyed to those born in the Commonwealth or who had at least one parent or grandparent born there.


Those of us who have some understanding of the concept of “news” on Fleet Street are not surprised to note the recent extensive coverage of the revelations of illegal immigration to the UK. Dwelling in squalid hotels in Ostend and stranded on Kentish beaches, these pitiful bands of Pakistanis were natural material for sensational headlines and obligatory “investigations.” No one—except the NS of March 10, 1967—investigated a test that would have preferred this perilous journey, or chronicled the dreary routine that filled the London airport detainee block with suspects for months. No one has noticed to this day that deceit and evasion are the invariable response to official treatment generally considered unfair, and that the racketeers who are willing to organize and profit from this trade are simply satisfying an urgent need. No one asked if we were prepared to endure the practical and moral costs of patrolling the English Channel indefinitely to intercept victims of our own lack of mercy, in a style reminiscent of the surveillance of Jewish illegal immigrants in Palestine 20 years ago.

In all this excitement, Sir Roy Wilson and his committee naturally had no place. For 18 months, at the direction of the Home Secretary, they seriously carried out their task: “to consider whether, and if so, what, rights of appeal or other remedies should be available to aliens and Commonwealth citizens who are denied entry “. Their report has now been published, and if it is accepted and implemented – which is to be expected, given the current attitude of the Home Office – it will go a long way in making the stranger at our gates feel he is being dealt with. in the tradition of English fair play. The committee accepts the argument that “it is fundamentally wrong and inconsistent with the rule of law that the power to make decisions affecting the whole future of the individual should be vested in executive officials whose conclusions are not subject to appeal.” Accordingly, he recommends the establishment of an independent appeals body, firstly, for persons who are denied entry to our air and sea ports; secondly, for those who are denied visas (in the case of foreigners) or entry certificates (in the case of Commonwealth citizens); thirdly—and this was expected by few observers—for those who were ordered to be deported.

Briefly, the plan is as follows: in case of refusal of entry, the immigrant will have the right to apply to the judge located in the appropriate port. It will be the direct responsibility of the immigration officer to inform him of this right. Immigrants may be represented by law, and time must be allowed for the presence of relatives, potential employers, social workers, representatives of the High Commission, or any other person who may be helpful. If the judge upholds the exception, an appeal can be made to a three-member court sitting in London. A particularly welcome provision is that an immigrant can be released on bail while the case is pending – this should “usually” be done if the case goes to court. So we must put an end to the shameful business of hustling immigrants onto their return flight while their relatives or lawyers make frantic phone calls.

The report is so carefully thought out and so liberal that one does not want to find fault. However, three points deserve Mr. Jenkins [Roy Jenkins, the Home Secretary] further consideration. The position of a judge is crucial, first, because he is the sole judge; secondly, because he has the power to grant or refuse leave to appeal to the tribunal. (Only the immigration officer’s initial appeal to an arbitrator will be an absolute right.) Since the immigrant is likely to view the arbitrator as just another official, it is certainly vital that arbitrators are always recruited from outside the public service. Sir Roy does recommend this for first appointments, but at a later stage does not object to filling the positions with immigration officers. In my opinion, this would always be a bad idea.

Further, a provision would be welcome whereby an applicant, if unable to enter the UK as an immigrant, could be admitted as a visitor. Currently, he can be either a successful or unsuccessful immigrant. If his application for entry is denied—usually because he is considered 16 rather than 15, or because he is a nephew rather than a son—he is sent home. It would have been humane to let him spend a month or so with the relatives he so longed to see. The police would have the task of ensuring his departure, but this duty already falls on their shoulders when foreigners exceed the allowed time of stay.

The committee’s attitude towards entrance certificates is, finally, debatable. The system of entry certificates was invented as an aid to immigrants. The certificate – not really a document, but a stamp in the passport, like a visa – is issued by a British representative in a center like Lahore or Delhi when he is convinced that the applicant is eligible to enter Britain. Its value is evidenced by the fact that over the last 12-month period, although 4,343 potential travelers were denied credentials, only 36 card holders were returned upon arrival. It is clear that the system saves a lot of hassle and expense for those whose eligibility is in doubt. The Wilson Committee notes that interviews take place “in privacy and in a relaxed atmosphere, where there is always someone who speaks the applicant’s language or dialect; such an atmosphere contrasts favorably with the sense of tension at the London airport.” The official may consult local residents who know the applicant; and if he needs time to make a decision, the applicant waits in his own country, often at home.

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The committee was rightly concerned to find that 80 percent of immigrants – mostly from India and Pakistan – are not trying to get certified and are calling for the system to be known more effectively. Indeed, there is reason to make the certificate mandatory, since it is valid for immigrants from the West Indies, because the transport companies insist on it. The Committee believes that this would be offensive, since most foreigners do not need visas – even US citizens, who do not reciprocate this courtesy. Perhaps the noble justice argument outweighed the reform that would have helped the immigrant in practice.

In any case, it is logical that an immigrant who has a certificate should, on arrival in the UK, be exempt from cross-examination of an immigrant who does not have one. It is regrettable, therefore, that the committee must maintain that immigration officials have the right to interrogate the former to ascertain whether the certificate was obtained through fraudulent statements or concealment of relevant facts, and whether circumstances have changed since it was issued. Of course, this should call into question the astuteness of our man at Lahore, who must have been in a better position than anyone at Heathrow, to discover any fraudulent claim or cover-up. Admittedly, common sense is that an immigration officer should be on the lookout for completely fake certificates, just like fake passports. But in general, he must treat the Commonwealth Citizenship Certificate as a right of entry, as an alien’s passport, or (when required) a visa. Such a rule, together with the general use of travel permits and an appeal procedure in contentious cases, would effectively end the hardships and injustices that have created such a pathetic history.

Read more in the NS archive hereand subscribe to the weekly newsletter “From the archive” here. A selection of writings covering the history of the New Statesman was recently published as “State Wisdom” (Weidenfeld and Nicholson).

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