Following the biggest ever demonstration of migrant workers Bill MacKeith looks at some of the issues raised by the Strangers Into Citizens campaign
Over 20,000 people attended the biggest-ever demonstration of undocumented migrants in the UK on bank holiday Monday 4 May – well over twice the size of a similar event two years ago. It was organized by Strangers into Citizens, part of the Citizens Organising Foundation.
The COF’s roots lie in the Industrial Areas Foundation established by Saul Alinsky in Chicago in 1940. After his death the foundation took a decisive turn to basing its work on church communities. The COF was set up in the UK in the 1980s and has main groups in East and South and West London and in Birmingham. Its stated aim is to ‘reweave the fabric of civil society’. It too is based on faith, notably Roman Catholic, congregations. Strangers into Citizens lists 1 GMB, 6 Unison and 3 Unite cleaners’ branches as well as Unite and Unison regional offices as backers.
COF avoids what it calls ‘wedge issues’ (e.g. sexual politics) to focus on a ‘Living Wage’, decent housing, and in recent years an amnesty or regularisation scheme for undocumented (or irregular or illegal) migrants in the UK.
The Strangers Into Citizens proposal for an ‘earned amnesty for long-term migrants’ is that: ‘those who have been here for 4 or more years should be admitted to a 2-year pathway to full legal rights (“leave to remain”) during which they work legally and demonstrate their contribution to UK economy and society. After that 2-year period [i.e. after a minimum 6 years in all], subject to knowledge of English and employer and community references, they would be granted permanent leave to remain.’
Not mentioned in this SiC summary is the requirement in their own proposal for a clean criminal record. This is definitely a problem: many people seeking political asylum and other migrants can only travel with false or no documents, yet this is deemed a criminal offence and punishable with up to two years prison – barring access to regularization under the SiC scheme.
This is a proposal for only a partial regularization or amnesty. A large proportion –perhaps a third or half – of the UK’s 500,000 to 750,000 undocumented migrants would be excluded. Some people argue that such partial amnesties should be rejected out of hand because they divide and rule, undermine across-the-board solidarity: what of those excluded, what of the inalienable human right to travel and settle where you want?
The Morning Star’s editorial on the day argued for regularization of ‘illegal immigrants’, ending: ‘Let them all stay, and let them have the same right as everyone else to live free from poverty and misery and fear.’ Hear, hear. But this is precisely what the SiC proposal would exclude.
But then, any amnesty or regularization scheme is bound to be partial until the day when all people have the freedom to travel and settle where they wish with full democratic and social rights. And what of those – hundreds of thousands of people resident in the UK for years – who in the absence of such measures are doomed never to become citizens with equal rights to those of the majority population?
London COF calls itself ‘the biggest alliance of civil organisations in the country’ – quite a claim when you think that the TUC clearly holds that title. Socialists and trade unionists should see the activities of the COF as a challenge. What is the strategy to adopt: to boycott or participate critically?
My own view is not to encourage or help to establish the COF, because of its primary initial orientation towards faith congregations and its exclusion of issues that might be deemed contentious by for example the Roman Catholic or Muslim hierarchies. Furthermore, the SiC ‘amnesty’ proposal is supported with the argument that it reinforces frontier control and will help reduce illegal immigration. Thus, in putting forward a scheme that will benefit some, the SiC and COF reaffirm the tough immigration control policies of the leading political parties. The same position was adopted by the Independent Asylum Commission, set up by the COF, in its various published reports.
In Trafalgar Square on 4 May the crowds were encouraged to sing ‘God Save the Queen’ (twice) with the aid of big screen sing-along words. In one corner of the square a mini rally was demanding ‘Papers for All or No Papers at All’, in another a small group of UK citizens sang the Internationale. Then, I remember seeing the relief and happiness of people holding their certificate of citizenship as they are photographed alongside the picture of Elizabeth Windsor propped up beside the vase of flowers after the ceremony in the town hall.
The right decision last Saturday was to join the demonstration, to point out the limitations and dangers of the SiC proposal and to chant in solidarity with slogans such as those of the strong Latin American contingent: ‘Papeles, papeles, papeles para todos!’
Despite the listed supporters, the number of trade union banners was small. Among a number of militant migrant workers groups was Justice for Janitors, who kept up a drumming beat in front of the National Gallery. There were supporting delegations from a number of European countries, including the Netherlands and Germany.