Luke de Noronha
We sat by the sea, on a rock, finishing our chicken before going into the bar. The sun had set, and Montego Bay was covered in a warm light that wouldn’t last. We spoke of England, in English accents. Outside this particular bar, in this particular city, we probably looked like tourists, holidaying in Jamaica – and both of us were glad of it. It was preferable to looking like a researcher and a ‘deportee’.
Ricardo moved to the UK aged 10. He went to primary school, high school and college in Sandwell in the West Midlands. Ricardo grew up without much money, but with lots of friends. He was subject to intense police harassment, pretty much since he was a boy. Ricardo wasn’t committing any offences in his teenage years. However, between the ages of 15 and 18 he was arrested over 100 times, and always NFA’d (no further action). He grew up in what the police defined as a ‘problem family’ and a ‘problem household’. As a result, the police constantly harassed him: on the way back from school, in the park, almost every time he left his house.
The line “there’s been an incident in the area and you match the description” became so familiar as to be beyond farcical.
After many years of racist harassment, the police did, in the end, find reason to charge Ricardo. As an 18 year old Ricardo joined in a burglary with some people he knew. It was the first time he had, but when the police arrived at the scene they recognised him – unsurprisingly – and he was arrested. When he went to prison, he was served with a deportation order. Without access to legal aid or any financial resources, he had little chance of fighting his case. He served his time, and then, in November 2014, aged twenty-one, he was deported to a Jamaica he had forgotten.
Ricardo’s story is not unique, or even extraordinary. People like him are deported all the time: people who are British in every sense but the most important one – in legal terms. We need to question what these stories tell us about contemporary Britain. Ricardo’s story complicates the ways in which we think about racism. Because despite a life in which the state suspected him, harassed him, and repeatedly arrested him, the worst was yet to come. Ricardo never had papers, and his immigration status ultimately mattered more than anything else. We need to explore how immigration status comes to matter in peoples lives, and theorise the ways in which it intersects with the social divisions we are more used to talking about in the social sciences: race, class, and gender.
Ricardo’s story should remind us that we are at a different juncture today than twenty years ago. Britain is multi-racial and multi-racist, but it is also increasingly multi-status. Between 1993 and 2014 the number of foreign citizens living in the UK increased from under 2 million to over 5 million. So if we are studying Britain’s ethnic minorities, more and more of them are not citizens of the UK. More than this, people without British citizenship have immigration statuses which are more temporary and precarious than migrants did twenty years ago. It can no longer be assumed that people are on the path toward settlement and eventual citizenship. There are more snakes than ladders in this game.
Temporariness is a feature of modern immigration regimes. In the UK – but also in Canada, the US and Australia, traditional countries of immigration – it is increasingly difficult to regularise status, to secure permanent residence, and ultimately to naturalise. As the legal scholar Dan Kanstroom argues, contemporary immigration controls render non citizens ‘eternal guests’, whose stay is only ever provisional, and can be revoked at any time. Immigrants are rendered disposable and temporary.
Citizenship acquisition is costly and relies on a clean record, and as a result people can be removed even when they have lived in the host country for most of their lives. In the UK this pattern is striking. Ricardo’s story provides one stark illustration of a Britain in which borders are increasingly salient. In the last few years, immigration controls have intensified, especially in terms of internal borders. Theresa May, when acting as Home Secretary, promised to make the UK a ‘hostile environment’ for ‘illegal immigrants’. ‘There will be no more living under the radar’, she promised. As such, landlords, banks, doctors, and university staff are required to check up on people’s right to access services, and ultimately to be here. ‘We are all border guards now’, it has been said.
Borders are not only salient in spectacular ways, in Lesbos or in Calais, but also in New Cross or Old Trafford. Borders really are everywhere and everyday, carving out divisions within friendship groups, between neighbours, siblings, couples and friends. Contemporary immigration controls are much more expansive, invasive, and widely enforced than ever before. To put it simply, immigration control impacts more people than ever, and it gets into their lives more.
Because immigration control effects more of the resident population, and the controls are more expansive and aggressively enforced, we need to situate immigration control in our work on racism. In Les Back’s brilliant ethnography New Ethnicities and Urban Culture, he explores how racism actually gets into young people’s lives. His concept of the metropolitan paradox – the claim that some of the most violent forms of racism co-exist with racism’s overcoming – is a powerful idea. It leads us to ask, where are the moments of critical opening, of racism being worked through – and where are the key sites of racist violence? How do people narrate the different elements of their experience in Britain? What makes them feel they belong, and what or who threatens their existence? I would argue that for young people living through the metropolitan paradox, immigration control matters, and can be a key site for the experience of institutional racism.
In today’s Britain, immigration control is used to monitor, manage and expel Britain’s ethnic minorities. It makes some people’s lives miserable, contradicts their lived sense of belonging, and draws divisions in schools, neighbourhoods and relationships. If when we talk about racism, we are trying to get at the things that punish, marginalise, and other racialised groups, then immigration control should surely be central to our analysis.
Les Back conducted his research in the late 1980s, and we can assume that his participants were all British citizens. If he were to do the same ethnography now, they would not be. And this shift, in the immigration/citizenship status of the population, should urge a shift in our analysis. This point is a simple one: immigration status matters. Steven Vertovec alerted us to this in his much cited and much criticised paper on Superdiversity. Vertovec argued that diversity in Britain is not what it used to be, immigrants now come from more countries; there are small and scattered populations of migrants who have arrived in recent years, stratified by age, class, legal status, gender, religion etc. Things are complex, with different variables cross-cutting one another.
It is important that we move beyond a kind of Windrush conception of Britain and it’s ethnic composition, and superdiversity might be one way of doing this, but Vertovec’s paper is primarily descriptive. It has been criticised for not discussing racism, nor referencing work on intersectionality. I would be the first to stress the limitations of Vertovec’s analysis, but the simple fact that he flagged migrant status was important. While Vertovec is criticised by scholars working in a critical race tradition, we might question whether they have worked hard enough to work through what he was saying. That is, are scholars of race looking for, talking about, and analysing immigration status, and its relationship to other forms of disadvantage?
I would suggest that they are not, or not enough. There seems to be a division of labour between those studying issues of race and ethnicity, and those who consider themselves migration studies scholars. This division is not neat, but there is a marked dearth of critical work on racism, which examines immigration control. We need more research into how immigration status is lived, by scholars who use the language of racism. If there are more non citizens living in the UK, and immigration controls get into their lives more, then we need ethnographic approaches which explore how immigration control plays out in people’s lives. We need to examine the relationship between race, class, gender, and immigration status.
Let us return to Ricardo to think through some of these points. Many of Ricardo’s friends, who he grew up with, served time. Many faced police harassment. All grew up poor, and experienced racism. Yet the thing that mattered most in Ricardo’s life was his lack of a red book. And today, Ricardo continues in Jamaica, trying to build some sort of life, while the people he grew up with are working their lives out here, in England. To understand Ricardo’s life, we have to examine the relationship between race, class and immigration status. Ricardo’s story reminds us that we cannot understand racism in Britain without factoring in immigration control, nor understand immigration control without attending to issues of racism. In multi-status Britain, racialised minorities are increasingly subject to wide-reaching forms of immigration control. The racist criminal justice system has deportation consequences, and we now sometimes deport ‘Black Britons’. And importantly, immigration status carves through families and friendship groups.
Immigration status matters, and intersects other social divisions. To resist the violence of immigration control, and to work for a future in which people like Ricardo won’t be wrenched from all that they know, we need to understand immigration control, to look for how it gets into people’s lives, and to use the language of racism to theorise it.
Luke de Noronha is a DPhil student at the University of Oxford and member of the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS).
Image: Wikipedia commons