Should the UK grant amnesty to undocumented migrants?

Between our imminent departure from the EU and the installation of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, it is understandable why the topic of Brexit has gripped the attention of the political commentariat more than usual lately.

Unfortunately, this frenzy has meant that some of Boris’ encouraging noises on the topic of immigration policy have been largely overlooked. 

On Boris’s first day in Number 10, whilst journalists were poring over the intricacies of his Brexit posturing, it was made clear that the new PM ’wasn’t interested in the numbers game’ when it came to migration: in effect scrapping the dreadful net migration target introduced by David Cameron, and taken up with zeal by Theresa May, in one fell swoop. 

Additionally, and more controversially, he also put his weight firmly behind the Government looking into the ‘advantages and disadvantages’ of granting amnesty to undocumented migrants currently living in Britain – in effect giving them legal status.

In explaining his position, Boris cited the Windrush fiasco as a case in point for why a theoretical commitment to the ‘mass expulsion’ of hard working and decent people, who have built their lives in Britain and never committed a crime, is legally ‘anomalous’ and must be investigated. 

Whilst an amnesty on undocumented migrants has been dubbed a ‘non starter’ by Alp Mehmet — chairman of Migration Watch — due to his belief that it would be ‘costly’ and ‘encourage future illegality’, it seems wrong to dismiss amnesty out of hand in this way without considering the evidence impartially.

Indeed, when one does assess the effects of a migrant amnesty by looking at the published research, it seems that the best evidence we have tells us that Alp’s fears are irrational and unreflective of reality.

For example, a paper studying the impact of amnesties of this kind in Spain during the 1990s/2000s found that as the total share of legal migrants went up, so too did migrant wages and their prospects for employment. This is a clear sign that amnesties help assimilate migrants into the economy, making their work more productive and valuable. Further, granting legal status would induct undocumented migrants into the formal structures of the economy, making their work liable for taxes, benefiting the public finances.

Far from being ‘costly’ then, the evidence is clear that amnesties help plug migrants into formal economic structures, fostering labour productivity and enabling the collection of tax revenues.

Alp’s claim that an amnesty would ‘encourage future illegality’ also does not stand up to scrutiny. A recent study has shown that acquiring legal status can make migrants up to two-thirds less likely to commit a crime and 50% less likely to reoffend — a trend likely explained by legal status expanding migrant eligibility for economic opportunities that do not involve criminal behaviour, thereby loosening the grip that the black market has on their labour.

Furthermore, despite fears, there is also little evidence that amnesties cause more illegal migration through a ‘pull factor’. A large study that looked into the effect of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act in the U.S. – a piece of legislation which granted migration amnesty to over 2.7 million people – found that the overall level of undocumented migration initially fell, with the trend then returning to pre-amnesty levels thereafter. Whilst the reason for this initial decrease is unclear, what we can be sure about is that there is no merit to claims that amnesties would cause more illegal immigration.

As the research shows then, in contradiction to the claims made by Migrant Watch, an amnesty for undocumented migrants would discourage criminal behaviour and generate more money for the public purse. This means safer streets, better funding for public services, and a healthier economy, with no evidence that any of this will cause a surge in undocumented migration after the fact.

The economic advantages are overwhelming, and one can only hope Boris sticks to his word, conducts an inquiry, and pushes on with enacting the necessary changes.

In sum, whilst our news feeds may be saturated for the foreseeable future with hot takes on Boris and his Brexit negotiations, we should not lose sight of the important economic and social benefits that an amnesty for undocumented migrants would bring. Boris has given us some encouraging signs so far: let us hope he can act courageously and follow his rhetoric through to action.

Charlie Richards is a current MPhil candidate in Politics at the University of Oxford. He tweets at @charlie_rchds.