Author: Sam Knight
Last week, I watched a group of European citizens attempting to register for their new migration status in post-Brexit Britain, in a workshop that was part of the testing phase for one of the most ambitious migrant-regularization programs ever undertaken. When Britain leaves the European Union, on March 29, 2019, it will begin to detach itself from the bloc’s system of “freedom of movement,” which allows people from twenty-eight countries to move around the continent, working and studying and retiring where they please. Next year, E.U. citizens living in the United Kingdom—an estimated 3.7 million people—will have to apply for what the Home Office calls “settled status.” They will be absorbed into Britain’s larger, and increasingly intolerant, legal architecture for the migrants who come from the rest of the world. Brexit is often hard to get your head around. The deal that Theresa May has negotiated with the E.U. is five hundred and eighty-five pages long and mired in profound political crisis. But there are elements of Brexit that are visceral and cold to the touch. And a gigantic bureaucratic effort to process European migrants, who make up around six per cent of the population and who have never been systematically counted before, is the largest and grimmest of these.
The workshop took place upstairs at the Baytree Centre, a charity that works with women and children in Brixton, South London. It was a wet, dismal afternoon. There was a nativity scene set up in the lobby, and the sound of staff singing “Happy Birthday” carried from a conference room down the hall. I had been invited by Frances Trevena, a lawyer for the Coram Children’s Legal Centre, a children’s rights organization, which had been asked to test the registration system using “vulnerable people with additional support needs.” The first trial of the E.U. Settlement Scheme began in August and involved a little more than a thousand N.H.S. workers, university staff, and students. Applicants register online, primarily via a smartphone app. In October, the immigration minister, Caroline Nokes, who is in charge of the project, reported that ninety-five per cent of the applicants who gave feedback found the process “easy to complete.” The quickest managed it in eight minutes and twenty-three seconds. The workshop at the Baytree Centre started at two o’clock in the afternoon. When I arrived, just after 3 P.M., Trevena was still helping the first family enter their details. A waiting room was overflowing. Rain drummed down on the roof.
Trevena was sitting at a laptop with a government-issued Android phone on the desk beside her. The Home Office’s EU Exit: ID Document Check app, which uses facial-recognition software and scans applicants’ passports, does not work on iPhones. (Officials have advised people to “use someone else’s smartphone” as a workaround.) Trevena, who speaks Spanish, was helping a woman and her fourteen-year-old daughter, whom I will call Daniela and Beatriz, to register. Daniela is in her forties, and she was wearing a pale blue sweater and carrying a brown file full of bank statements, birth certificates, and blue Home Office residents’ permits. She is a Spanish citizen, although she is originally from Ecuador. Along with other family members, Daniela and Beatriz arrived in London in the summer of 2016, after the Brexit vote. I asked Daniela, who works as a cleaner, whether she thought that the country had changed since then. She said that it had, enormously, but that it was hard to explain how—which is how most us feel.
In order to cope with the volume of applications, which could reach some twenty thousand a day in the spring, the E.U. Settlement Scheme is intended to be almost entirely digital. Immigration advocates fear that this will disadvantage applicants who are poorer, older, and don’t speak much English. “It is almost designed for an educated civil servant that would have no problems navigating it,” Colin Yeo, an immigration barrister and blogger, told me.
Trevena translated the questions on the phone’s screen for Daniela. Each individual in the system, including children, must be linked to an e-mail address and a phone number—another source of anxiety for lawyers and campaigners. “Most of my young people use those ones that give you six months of free Internet and then you chuck it,” Trevena said. She stressed to Daniela and Beatriz the importance of updating their details. Mother and daughter wore matching pairs of sensible black shoes. Because they have been in the U.K. for only two years, they were applying for “pre-settled status,” which would allow them to stay in the country until 2023, when they could register permanently. “If you change your number, you need to call them and let them know. Otherwise you will get locked out of your status,” Trevena explained slowly. “You are going to need your status for every job, every house.”
For a while, the room filled with the sound of text messages arriving, among them security PINs that Trevena entered into the system to link Daniela and Beatriz to their applications. (At one point, a friend of Beatriz’s popped in for a minute and the teen-agers swapped phones and it became unclear who was texting whom about what.) Then it was time to take photographs to feed into the facial-recognition software. Trevena looked across the desk at Beatriz, who had her hair bunched into two small, Princess Leia-style buns over her ears. “This is definitely the hair for a future employer?” Trevena asked. Beatriz thought so. Trevena passed her the government phone. The screen flashed green then yellow then red, and numbers counted down. Beatriz arranged her expression into a light scowl. The phone clicked. Trevena looked at the screen. “Is that your forever photo?” she asked. Daniela came over and mother and daughter contemplated the image. “Sí,” they agreed.
The Home Office is aiming for a hundred-per-cent participation rate in the E.U. Settlement Scheme, although that is not what happens in this kind of program. Migrant regularizations, like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, in the U.S., or the amnesty for foreign workers in Spain, in 2005, typically have enrollment rates of between fifty and seventy-five per cent. (The Spanish program, which got up to seventy-seven per cent, after six attempts, was viewed as a triumph.)
No one knows why British officials are so confident. “We don’t think there has ever been any kind of exercise of this scale anywhere in the world,” Yeo told me. If ninety per cent of Britain’s E.U. nationals register before June 30, 2021, when the program ends, more than three hundred and fifty thousand people will still be undocumented, at the mercy of the U.K.’s so-called “hostile environment” toward irregular migrants. “They are going to be illegal on the day after the deadline,” Yeo told me. “Under current government policy, they need to be evicted, their bank accounts shut down, and they lose their jobs if they have got one.” That is what happened in the Windrush scandal, in which the victims of another botched regularization program—this time for immigrants from Britain’s colonies in the Caribbean—ended up losing their jobs, being denied medical care, and being threatened with deportation. “I have started to wonder whether I am wrong and they do understand what they are doing,” Yeo said. “And they just don’t care.”