Telling the real story behind immigration figures
If we're to solely listen to a misinformed media, then it's easy to think Brexit is all about jobs or benefits, writes Thom Brooks
Immigration has retaken centre stage as the referendum fast approaches. While the issue is a top concern for voters, the public discussion routinely focuses on misinformation or confusion.
This is a problem that infects the debate across virtually all levels. Yes, the public overestimate the numbers of migrants and assume that the smallest group - asylum seekers - are actually the largest. Yet voters can hardly be blamed for what they are told daily by newspapers more keen to sell copies than open minds.
When we hear talk about immigration and how it should be reformed, there are some areas that receive mention to the exclusion of others. Brexit campaigners raise the need to introduce an Australian-based points system - originally established successfully in Australia to help draw more migrants in - as a way to bring the UK's net migration down. Yet few seem to notice that we already have such a system for non-EU citizens that has been in place for over a decade.
Remain supporters have offered a mixed response of 'there's not much more we can do to reduce migration', and 'bringing numbers down risks harming the economy'. These two views sit uneasily together, not least because EU free movement is not uncontrolled but subject to restrictions that are poorly enforced in Britain as compared to France or Germany. Each side has something to answer for.
A family affair
Missing in all of this is the family - and it is here that there is perhaps the most misinformation and confusion.
Most migrants come to the UK for work or study. The next sizeable group come as a spouse or family member. Public figures ranging from the Queen to Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage are married to persons who were or remain non-British citizens.
In the intense focus on how non-UK workers can and should be restricted from finding employment in Britain, their families regularly fall off the radar. This has significant financial and personal costs for the people affected - and it happens more often than many people think.
In Becoming British, I tell the story of Jasmine and Martin. Jasmine is from Indonesia and Martin is a British citizen. They met in Jakarta and soon married. After the birth of their son, they decided to move to Kent so their children could attend the local schools and be closer to Martin's family.
Jasmine and Martin are not a couple trying to play the system. In good faith, they tried to play by the rules. They met with their local British consul, who advised them that Martin's desire to take his family home would be no problem. All they had to do was board a plane and show passport control at Heathrow they were married; a marriage visa would be given on the spot.
Except that's not how marriage visas work. They arrived in London and did as they were told, but Martin's wife and son were given a brief tourist visa and threatened with deportation if they didn't leave in six months. The family was devastated.
Taking advice from a local solicitor, Martin found a job earning enough salary to sponsor his family's return to Britain from Indonesia. But they were denied a longer-term visa again. The reason this time is Martin's job was in Saudi Arabia and he could only sponsor his family if earning the same salary anywhere in the UK. Their solicitor forgot to tell them that. Years later, the family remains strong, but they are now focused on setting up a new life elsewhere.
I found their story was far from unique. The immigration rules change almost daily. The regulations are amended so quickly that not even British consulates or some specialists in the field seem to know what the rules are at any given time.
Standard of care
I raise these recent stories of real people who have approached me for advice for a simple reason.
It's easy to criticise the public for not having an accurate grasp of migration law and statistics in a climate where little such information is found in mainstream media.
But we should also not duck the many serious mistakes on the frontline by border agents and legal professionals alike. The system may be complex, but the standard of care must rise.
The finger of blame clearly points to successive governments that steamroll ahead with ever new amendments and immigration bills, but without any apparent awareness of how they all fit together or consider problems on the ground.
Immigration is about more than tabloid headlines - it's about our economy, but also families.
A system that closes the door on British citizens like Martin from living in his own country should cause us all to think more carefully and seriously about
how it can be put right. We're
not there now.