How Labour members can dismantle the hostile environment through direct action

Andy Thornley / CC BY 2.0

In May, immigration enforcement officers arrived at the Circus Street development in central Brighton. They were there to raid the workplace and remove any construction workers suspected of not having the right to work in the UK. It was a well-planned operation, with all entrances and exits to the site sealed whilst they checked documents. But there was something they hadn’t predicted: the degree of community opposition they would face.

Local residents were the first to respond, gathering outside the gates to film and pass legal information on to the workers being taken into immigration vans. News of the raid spread rapidly through group chats and people from across the city, including a significant proportion of Labour members, started to head directly to the site. The raid ended up being heavily disrupted. Similar scenes have repeated themselves over and over around the country over the last few years, but the political significance of this organic movement is only beginning to become apparent.

Migration is a defining issue of our moment. A 2017 Ipsos Mori study identified 28% of the population as holding strongly anti-immigrant views grounded in economic concerns over competition for welfare, housing and jobs, with a further 23% expressing cultural concerns about migration causing a nebulous ‘change’ in society. These two groups form the social base of the increasingly polarised right wing of British politics. This balance of opinion is not just a fact of life, but has been produced – and, indeed, New Labour’s war on asylum seekers played a very important role in producing it.

Labour has moved left since Blairism and the subsequent mug saga of the Milliband leadership. The policy platform established in 2018 commits to ending hostile environment policies and indefinite immigration detention, closing some immigration detention centres, and scrapping net migration targets and minimum income requirements. However, the party’s vision of a skills-based visa system still falls far short of a socialist migration policy premised on freedom of movement.

As Corporate Watch suggests, the hostile environment isn’t really about controlling immigration. Instead, it works more like the wars on drugs or counterterrorism, which attempt to win mass consent for a solution to a ‘problem’ but actually function as political camoflage for the functioning of racist policing and imperalist foreign policy respectively. This ‘war on migration’ pretends to be solving a supposed problem of resource scarcity and cultural homogeneity, whilst actually creating a hyper-precarious low wage labour force to service location-specific industries like construction and services, and undermining class solidarity through the spectre of the migrant ‘parasite’.

And like the wars on drugs and terrorism, this war on migration is, by design, entirely unwinnable.  Instead of being a finite policy, it grows into a continual programme for the extension of ruling class interests. People move for work, for family, for safety – they always have, and they always will. The hostile environment, just like the wall, isn’t a policy designed to achieve an actual goal, it’s a spectacle designed to achieve a political end.

But in the near future, these spectacles will collide with the significant numbers of migrants forced to leave home as a result of climate collapse. Facing shortages of food, water, electricity and other basic necessities, many will head to Europe. The political struggles of today will set the coordinates through which this migration will be understood. Without significant change, it seems quite possible that Fortress Europe, built on spectacular cruelty, will attempt to shut the door on them no matter the humanitarian consequences. The current situation in the Mediterranean is only a prelude.

So, Labour members should – regardless of their positions on Brexit – agitate for a socialist migration policy within the party. Rather than committing to continue a war on migration that cannot be won, we have to reject the entire premise. But beyond questions of policy, we should also be part of the widespread and self-organised community opposition to immigration enforcement raids.

A report from the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) earlier this year revealed that an increasing proportion of the 7,000 annual “illegal working deployments” are being opposed. Below the official language, the report revealed that, in some communities, public consent for the state’s policing of migration status has collapsed.

This opposition is not centrally coordinated, with the ICIBI report repeating an intelligence assessment that: “the majority of incidents were not coordinated by a group or activist, but involved members of the local community, unaffiliated to any groups.” This decentralisation, however, has not hindered the effectiveness of this opposition, which – alongside scandals like Windrush – has provoked a crisis of both morale and resources within the Home Office department.

Immigration enforcement have adapted their tactics in response. They are now increasingly likely to call off raids in the face of opposition, or else only continue with significant police back up. More recently, activists have reported that immigration enforcement officers are both launching raids in plain clothes and unmarked cars, and compiling intelligence reports on community opposition, in a manner more reminiscent of a secret police force than officers with only 25 days’ training and highly-limited legal powers.

In the US, opposition to Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) has escalated in recent months. Jewish groups like Never Again Action have taken direct action against ICE’s ‘reign of terror’, ranging from blockades of detention centres on the US-Mexico border, to more generalised opposition to raids throughout the country.

Their example is one that Labour members can follow right now, by organising with others in our local communities to oppose the enforcement of a brutal border regime. Guides about what to do when a raid is spotted are widely available. By creating networks willing to respond to immigration raids in order to inform migrants of their rights and demonstrate community opposition, Labour members can begin to dismantle the hostile environment before we even form a government.

James Kelly is editing LabourList while Sienna Rodgers is away.

More from LabourList