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Do tougher immigration penalties deter migrants or only make them more vulnerable to exploitation?

November 9, 2015

As the Immigration Bill proceeds through Parliament questions have been raised about the effectiveness of tougher immigration laws on deterring undocumented migrants from entering and staying in the UK. For this purpose the Immigration Bill proposes an ‘offence of illegal working’ that would mean those found working without the right to work in the UK could face financial penalties and up to 51 weeks in prison. Supporters of this offence have suggested that the tougher the sanctions, the greater the deterrence.

FLEX has advocated strongly against the ‘offence of illegal working’ in the Immigration Bill. There is a real fear that this offence will strengthen the hand of the unscrupulous employer over the most vulnerable workers in our labour market. For us it is clear that tougher legislation and penalties directed at workers will push vulnerable people into ever more exploitative situations, rather than acting as a deterrent. Indeed in many cases of trafficking for labour exploitation we see, people are held in exploitative conditions precisely because of their fear of immigration repercussions.

Additionally, research shows that tough immigration laws and sanctions do not prevent migrant workers from taking a risk and migrating without documents. Research conducted by Emily Ryo from the University of Southern California, on Mexican migrants crossing into America, concluded that greater immigration enforcement does little to deter undocumented migrants. It found that people’s fear of being caught and punished did not have a significant impact on their intention to migrate without papers. Instead, other factors such as the availability of work, the presence of people from the same community or family in America already and the need to support families, had a greater influence on a person’s decision to cross the border. Ultimately, the American immigration system was seen as unfair and biased against Mexican migrants and so not worthy of compliance.

These findings challenge the conventional view that decisions to migrate are based on a simple cost-benefit analysis, where higher risks mean greater costs. Using this theory, it seems fair to assume that tougher penalties, greater border control and increased immigration regulation would outweigh the economic benefits of migration and so act as a deterrent. Such thinking is certainly being used to justify the increased sanctions aimed at undocumented workers in the UK as part of the proposed Immigration Bill.

So why do people still choose to migrate despite the growing risks of breaching these laws? Emily Ryo’s research into Mexican migrants’ journeys to America, found that it is not that people are lawless individuals willing to break any law, but that they see American immigration law as lacking moral legitimacy when it denies people the ability to meet their social and economic needs. Ryo concluded that laws that are seen to prevent people from working to support their families lack ‘moral credibility’. Equally laws that are seen to punish people for meeting the demands of the American labour market are not seen as fair.

With this in mind, and as the Immigration Bill makes its way through Parliament, politicians must begin to listen to research, as well as evidence from the ground in the UK, to reconsider the approach they take to immigration control.