Authors: Candice Morgan-Glendinning and Dr Melanie Griffiths (University of Bristol)
The following post is informed by an ESRC-funded project running at the University of Bristol. The research examines the intersection of family life and immigration policy for families consisting of British or EEA nationals and men with precarious or irregular immigration status. Further project information, including a report and policy briefings can be found here:
‘They never told me when you come to England that you can’t have a girlfriend and you can’t have a baby. They never told me, no one told me. Even if they had told me, come on, it is life.’ (Undocumented father)
These are the words of a man who arrived in the UK nearly two decades ago, fleeing his country as a lone fourteen-year-old. They are the words of a father of an eight-year-old British child. The words of a man who has also spent nearly five years in immigration detention. A man who’s spent more than half his life in the UK, transformed from expectant father to a foreign national prisoner whose residence in the UK is fiercely contested.  The stress and long uncertainty of his immigration detention and threatened deportation has broken up his relationship and is stopping him from being the present and active father he wants to be. Although finally out of detention, he’s still trapped far from his family and penniless, living under the limbo of a Deportation Order.
Each year thousands of men are forcibly removed from the country, including many who arrived in the UK as children and teenagers, as the Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group report Don’t Dump me in a Foreign Landillustrates. Their family lives and social bonds in the UK are threatened by separation through deportation for immigration and/or criminal offences. As a result of a series of policy changes over the last decade, deportation in ‘the public interest’ can occur for increasingly low-level criminality, or even just on the basis of allegations (potentially with little evidence) of criminal ‘character’ or ‘lifestyle’, as discussed further below. For these young men, as well as those guilty of serious criminality, the fact of having spent formative years in the UK raises serious questions over the proportionality of deportation, and the country that should be held responsible for their offending and rehabilitation.
From protected child to Foreign National Offender
There are certain protections afforded to unaccompanied under-18-year-olds subject to immigration controls in the UK, generally including exemption from immigration detention and deportation. Before turning 18, and thereby becoming detainable and deportable, these ‘young arrivers’ may enjoy periods of relative stability; living in communities, attending school, forming networks and relationships.
They may well also have disadvantaged starts in life; growing up in care or experiencing marginalisation and discrimination, whether from racism and deprivation, or xenophobia from the increasingly ‘hostile’ nature of the immigration discourse. Such factors, coupled with exclusion from lawful employment, increases their risk of criminalisation. Despite this, many of the ‘young arrivers’ who participated in the research felt British and settled. Most were entirely unaware that their behaviour could be used to bring their foreignness to the fore and justify their deportation.
For many, the route to deportability is via the criminal justice system. Young people subject to immigration controls often occupy the same spaces as their British Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) peers. The recent David Lammy report highlights the over-representation of BAME youth within all aspects of the criminal justice system, although he does not acknowledge the additional vulnerabilities arising from a precarious immigration status. Changes made to deportation policy in recent years severely reduce the scope of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to respect for one’s family and private life) for foreign nationals with criminal records. There are increasingly severe immigration consequences for criminal offending, now with ‘automatic’ deportation for those sentenced to 12 months imprisonment, whether as a single sentence, or accrued over multiple short sentences.
These trends are further developed by Operation Nexus, a little-known police-Home Office interagency arrangement first piloted in 2012. Nexus reinvigorates ‘intelligence-led’ deportation, including on the basis of police contact and ‘non-convictions’ such as stop-and-searches (even if nothing is found), charges that are withdrawn or made in error, and being present at crime scenes, even as a victim or witness.
Nexus-related appeals are heard in the Immigration and Asylum Tribunal and are not within the scope for legal aid. Appellants often have no legal representation and are at serious disadvantage. And yet they are made highly vulnerable by the low standard of proof of the Tribunal, which allows the use of hearsay, anonymous allegation and circumstantial evidence. Allegations of gang membership and drug offences, for example, were prevalent in the Nexus-related hearings observed during the research. These accusations were frequently unevidenced, which is particularly concerning given that ‘drugs’ and ‘gangs’ are concepts said to be commonly used to signify racialised young men. For more information on Operation Nexus and the policy implications, see this Policy Briefing 
Barriers to maintaining family life
Once labelled a ‘foreign criminal’, even people who grew up in the UK are liable to immigration enforcement measures. Experiences such as immigration detention significantly impacts people’s mental health and feelings of belonging, with research participants describing themselves rejected as ‘nothing men’, ‘ghost men’ and ‘useless’. Detention and deportability led to people feeling both of being outside British society, and yet permanently bonded to the country through citizen children and partners.
First love, first child. I feel like I’ve got nobody except her. She’s my life, my love, she’s everyone to me.” (Undocumented partner and father)
Ties to family in the UK provide people with practical and emotional support. However, immigration detention, particularly its indefinite nature, puts considerable – sometimes terminal – strain on relationships. Maintaining relationships is challenging, and there is scant policy on supporting such relationships, especially when compared to provisions for prisoners. Indeed, the immigration and detention systems erect multiple hurdles to continued family life, including through practical, financial and emotional barriers against visiting detained loved ones, as described in another policy briefing, Detention of Fathers in the Immigration System. In any case, family visits can bring mixed feelings: loss and guilt, as well as love and strength.
Some participants consider immigration detention to be a governmental tool, intended to destabilise their lives, break their spirits and encourage immigration or criminal offending. Removed from their family and support networks, relationships were irreversibly damaged and people’s resolve and mental health often deteriorated. Increasingly, separation from one’s family also has legal consequences, by weakening claims to have ‘genuine and subsisting’ relationships with partners or children, thus undermining Article 8 based applications. This is so even when such separation is involuntary, through detention or removal.
‘Your family does not need you’ 
Immigration policy now explicitly places less weight on the family lives of foreign nationals if they have irregular immigration status or criminal records (see blog post: Invisible Fathers of Immigration Detention in the UK). There are also suggestions of gender, racial and class biases affecting the value placed on non-citizen family figures. In some cases people’s relationships simply were not recognised by the authorities, in others they were acknowledged but dismissed as unimportant. Fathers, boyfriends and husbands in immigration detention found it particularly difficult to have their private lives valued, with some accused of opportunistically having children in an attempt to undermine border controls.
By emphasising present realities over potential futures, decision-makers commonly use separation through detention and a prevention from lawful employment to dispute the strength of the men’s family roles. Many participants were told by the Home Office that paternal relationships could continue after deportation, with communication technology sufficiently replacing the physical contact of fathers (the ‘Skype hug’). But as a British female wife of a deported husband explained:
Yes, we’ve got WhatsApp and Facetime, but it’s not the same as that person being there.’ (Partner of a deported man, with whom she has two children)
Decision makers also often argue that the whole family – including British citizens – can relocate to the country of deportation, including countries that the Foreign Office warns against travelling to. Such suggestions undermine self-determination and overlook considerations such as extended family and networks in the UK.
Reunite and respect
Rather than being prison or punishment, immigration detention is an administrative process, generally intended to facilitate a person’s removal from the country. Yet, such language belies the emotional violence of indefinite incarceration and the threat of deportation to distant ancestral homelands. It also obscures the active role of detention in separating individuals from families and social networks, which, in a cruel twist, may then be used to weaken people’s chances of having their relationships deemed ‘genuine and subsisting’, thereby easing their exile from the country and their families.