University library. Photo: Wikicommons.In March of this year, a small group of academics circulated an open letter in opposition to the Immigration Bill that is currently under discussion in the UK House of Lords. As has been widely reported on openDemocracy, the Bill seeks to: impose requirements for private landlords, banks and the DVLA to carry out immigration checks on customers and to deny housing, bank accounts and driving licences to irregular migrants; severely restrict access to appeals for many migrants; and impose immigration checks and a 'health charge' for temporary migrants from outside the European Economic Area.
In the space of a few days nearly 300 people signed the letter, from professors to doctoral researchers, and across the full spectrum of UK universities. This follows three other open letters in the last year: in August 2013, opposing the 'Go Home' vans and other government initiatives against irregular migration; in November 2013, supporting access to Higher Education for students with Discretionary Leave to Remain; and in March 2014, protesting against Universities UK members' compliance with immigration checks on students.
The response on this recent occasion was particularly impressive, given that this letter went beyond the immediate implications of the Bill or the impact on university students and staff, to question some of the fundamental principles of the government's agendas on immigration control, welfare and austerity. It is significant that so many were prepared to speak out publicly, even in the context of neoliberal universities where the position of many academics and researchers is increasingly insecure. The full text of the letter is below:
We are writing regarding the UK Immigration Bill 2013-14. We feel compelled to speak out against the Bill: as researchers who dispute the assumptions that underlie the Bill; as educators concerned about the impact on our international students and colleagues, who form a substantial presence in our programmes and critically contribute to academic life; and as members of society concerned by the likely human and social impacts of the Bill.
The underlying discourse of the Immigration Bill blames immigration for the intense insecurity and fear for the future that so many of us face, and pits the interests of migrants against the interests of 'British workers'. It is based on the false division between 'us and them' – and the assumption that if migrants are not excluded then they will take British workers' jobs and place an unbearable strain on state finances and services. These ideas are not backed by research, and we suggest that they are false (for instance on the myth of migrants being a burden on the NHS see here).
The government's agendas for immigration, austerity and welfare reform are increasingly intertwined in politicians' speeches and the media. All are based on the principle that for most of us, access to necessities should be dependent solely on our usefulness to employers. Increased conditionality in the provision of welfare support goes together with the co-option of a range of professionals to act as border guards, policing access to resources on the basis of immigration status. This normalises the idea of the 'deserving' and the 'undeserving' poor, which creates pressure for all workers to accept lower wages and poorer conditions of employment.
The government states that the measures in the Immigration Bill will tackle irregular migration by creating a 'hostile environment', but this is far more likely to increase irregular migration by driving large numbers of migrants underground. There is a significant body of research showing that immigration restrictions leave many migrants vulnerable to exploitation (see research by the ILO and the IOM), with negative consequences for everyone. This is why trade unions in the UK have taken a clear stance against the Immigration Bill as workers and their organisations realise that, as long as migrants are treated unequally and do not join the same struggles for better conditions, they are all going to be weaker. It is time to change the terms of the debate, to build an alternative to the politics of austerity and exclusion through solidarity and cooperation instead of division.
Growing numbers of academics passionately oppose the policy agenda of the UK government, and are looking for effective ways to take action. This includes taking action through Action Against Racism and Xenophobia and the Activism in Sociology Forum. Academics have an important role to play in critiquing dominant ideas and proposing alternatives, and this takes on a particular significance when grassroots activism in Britain is at a very low level, even in the midst of wholesale attacks on wages and living standards for large sections of the population, and a steady erosion of access to justice and democratic rights. Many service providers are run increasingly like businesses and even campaigning organisations have increasingly adopted the model of a professional lobby group rather than a social movement.
The consequences of professionalised campaigning were vividly brought home to me while organising the second open letter mentioned above, which supported access to Higher Education for asylum seekers with Discretionary Leave to Remain, focusing on the case of Yonas and Abiye Kebede. When I circulated that letter for signatures the vast majority of the responses were very positive, but I received criticisms from the paid staff of more than one campaigning organisation that surprised me (by contrast I received nothing but enthusiasm and support from service providers). One organisation spoke in general terms about the need to be 'strategic' and avoid 'inflaming' the situation. Another used similar language, and spelled out their thinking more fully: they argued that the priority should be to persuade people who are currently hostile to asylum seekers to change their minds, and that to do this it was no good using facts – emotion was the only thing that would work. Furthermore, they argued, we needed to appeal to people's existing values. Giving an example of what is widely regarded as a right wing newspaper, they argued that the best way to win over its readers would be to present asylum seekers as helpless and vulnerable children, who are having their individual freedom taken away by a bullying state.
This presents campaigning, and by extension social change, as a technical matter of changing a target group's attitudes on a given question, while leaving their overall outlook unchallenged. It is the replacement of political action with marketing. In practice it means an accommodation with racism, and the subordination of the voices and agency of oppressed people to the needs of professional image management. It also implicitly relies on a view of social change as emerging from consensus rather than being won through mobilisation and struggle, even as the government, elected without a majority let alone consensus, daily hammers home the reality of a war against groups including immigrants, disabled people and the working class.
Academics are not under the same daily pressures as many organisations, to meet service users' needs with dwindling resources, or to produce campaigning 'quick wins' that can provide some immediate relief. We need to make the most of this freedom to maintain a radical perspective, in the sense of getting to the root of social injustice. In some situations this will require resistance to the current expectation from funders and the government that all research must produce immediate 'practical' results, which could undermine agendas for long term transformation.
As Gargi Bhattacharyya points out in a recent special issue of the Ethnic and Racial Studies journal dedicated to 'Race Critical Public Scholarship', academics also need to be prepared to go beyond offering technical advice, even if this is all that many partners want to hear from us, and develop visions of possible alternatives. This may require both 'public' academic practice, where we find ways to reach out to the public beyond the open letter format, through initiatives such as the Discover Society magazine, and more 'private' endeavours that are not the property of our employers, such as offering our services to political campaigns and movements. Academics by themselves cannot create the kind of movement that would be needed force a progressive change in the direction of British society, but they can nurture and promote the ideas that such a movement will need.
The authors of the open letter included Tom Vickers, Gabriella Alberti and Hannah Lewis. See full list of signatories.