This article appeared in our magazine for Labour Party conference 2022
By Rayah Feldman (Feminist Fightback, an anticapitalist feminist collective)
Immigration control has always affected men and women differently. The whole notion of immigration controls has long been predicated on the idea of marriage and a family with a male breadwinner and dependent wife. As long ago as 1905 when the first explicitly anti-immigrant legislation was introduced in Britain to keep out poor Jews fleeing pogroms in eastern Europe, the “immigrant” was constructed as male and was “undesirable” unless he could support not only himself but his dependants. These ideas have helped to keep women in enforced dependency in families, while explicit hostile environment policies have brought immigration control into almost every aspect of migrants’ lives.
But in spite of the prescriptive notion of the heteronormative nuclear family supporting wife and children, in practice the state seeks to restrict family formation among migrant or mixed families. Indeed the barriers to family formation by foreigners are legion. Restrictions on marriage such as virginity tests on Asian women in the 1970s, NHS charges for maternity care and financial obstacles to family unification.
For example, since 2012 there has been a minimum income threshold of £18,600 for British citizens or people settled in the UK to bring a partner to join them. The threshold rises with each child and is clearly discriminatory against women because women’s average earnings are lower than men’s. It was estimated that 55% of women working in the UK would fail to meet the threshold to bring a non-British partner and 69% would not be able to afford to bring a partner and two children.
Similarly, the family is forgotten when it comes to maternity care. Undocumented women and those on visitor or fiancé visas, are not entitled to free NHS care and face staggeringly high charges, from £7000, for routine maternity care. Yet only the woman who receives the care is responsible for payment, and she can face sanctions on future visa applications if she incurs a debt over £500. A dependent woman within a relationship is rendered vulnerable to abuse and greater control if she alone is deemed responsible for a debt of thousands of pounds. No sanction is brought against the father.
Queer and trans migrants, especially refugees, face additional problems in getting recognition of their relationships and “chosen family” support. They also have to deal with dangers and abuse in countries through which they are travelling or in which they have taken refuge. While British immigration law recognises gay marriage and civil partnerships, people in same sex relationships often come from countries where no legal proof of relationship exists. They are routinely asked to “prove” their sexuality in intrusive and humiliating ways. LGBTQ+ asylum seekers are now among those at risk of being deported to Rwanda, ostensibly to claim asylum, in a country known to stigmatise and discriminate against LGBTQ+ people.
For women, dependence is built into the fundamental assumptions of immigration controls and is reinforced by them. With the growth of the hostile environment, this dependence has increased. For example, from 2012 dependent spouses must remain five years in a marriage before they can obtain indefinite leave to remain – increased from two years. This can force women in abusive relationships to stay rather than risk destitution if they leave. Often, refusal to arrange extension of a visa is part of the abuse. Unless such woman meet strict eligibility conditions, they are likely to face irregular immigration status and destitution if they leave their partner.
No Recourse to Public Funds policies have a serious impact on family life, and prevent people accessing mainstream benefits. It disproportionately affects single parents, of whom the overwhelming majority are women who cannot work because of their childcare responsibilities.
The UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women Committee has recognised “women migrants and women sex workers as groups of women who are disproportionately affected by gender-based violence, discrimination, and marginalisation.” It has also called on states to repeal visa schemes that discriminate against women and ensure occupations dominated by migrant women workers are granted labour protections. This includes especially domestic work and sex work.
Gender discrimination is palpable in the immigration restrictions on migrant domestic workers, mainly women, who accompany families they have worked for abroad. Visas for these workers last only 6 months and are non-renewable. There are myriad reports of abuse and exploitation among such workers, as their visas push them to remain with abusive employers rather than lose their livelihood, accommodation, and permission to stay in the UK.
Immigration controls are about excluding certain categories of people, not because of what they’ve done but because of who they are. Immigration controls act to increase divisions and suspicions between people and to exacerbate the subordination, marginalisation, and discrimination of particular groups. That’s why the abolition of immigration controls and free movement are fundamental to an inclusive and intersectional feminist politics. No-one should be excluded – noone is illegal.
The policing of prostitution in the UK uses immigration law to particularly target migrant sex workers. For example, in 2017 police raided a flat in Swindon where three Romanian women were working. The police arrested the women, took their money, and deported them. They framed this as for the women’s safety, telling the local paper: “the women are now safe and away from their clients and are no longer vulnerable to the risks of off-street sex work”. A few months later, police in Smethwick raided a flat where three Romanian women were working, and had the women evicted and then deported. In Leeds in 2013, the police prosecuted three Polish women who had escaped an exploitative manager and were working in what the judge acknowledged was an ‘informal co-operative’. They were convicted. In 2018, hundreds of police officers raided London’s Chinatown parlours in what was portrayed in the press as an anti-trafficking operation. As a result of the raid, multiple women were charged with immigration offences, and many were taken to Yarl’s Wood and then deported. The police also stole £37,000 out of individual women’s lockers.