As an immigration lawyer, I should be all in favour of Brexit. European free movement rules are a disaster for we immigration lawyers. Unlike the UK’s hideously complex immigration laws, free movement rules are simple, user friendly, apply equally across all European countries and they do not just permit free movement, they facilitate and promote it. As with nationality laws, people automatically qualify without having to do anything and can apply for the necessary documents on their own without having to use an expensive lawyer.
In short, removing the rules that permit Europeans to move and settle freely around the continent with their families would generate a lot of extra work for me. It is not as if Brexit would stop people from moving. As we have seen with net migration figures rising in the teeth of ever nastier and more punishing immigration rules, people will continue to move around the world for work, love, study and simple curiosity, just as they always have. Even if the overall numbers were to reduce, a far higher number would need help from a lawyer because it would be harder, more bureaucratic and more expensive to move to the UK. And that would be good business for me.
We immigration lawyers are all receiving a lot of enquiries at the moment from anxious Europeans, some of whom have lived in the UK for years and years and others of whom are more recent arrivals. They are extremely worried about their jobs, their families and the lives they have built here in the UK. No-one is able to reassure them about what will happen to them if the UK does vote to leave, and I would rather not be drawn into a conversation that ends with me saying that they will probably be allowed to stay, but the rules on their family members would be likely to be much stricter.
It is those we refer to as “third country nationals” that would be most affected by Brexit. This impersonal terminology refers to people who are not European nationals themselves but who are the family members of a European national. To the frustration of Home Secretary Theresa May and the UK Home Office, the rights of this group have considerably improved in recent years due to EU legislation and also the evolving case law of the hated Court of Justice of the European Union.
In some ways, the rights of family members appear strong. Under UK immigration rules, a British citizen must earn at least £18,600 in order to obtain a visa for a spouse. That this income requirement discriminates against women, ethnic minorities, the young and those who live outside London is merely consistent with other Government policies. There are other onerous requirements as well.
In contrast, EU free movement laws simply require a genuine marriage and no more, so that it is very easy for a French national to bring to the UK a Brazilian or Moroccan spouse. This maddens Theresa May, who desperately wants to impose the same draconian rules on European nationals as she has imposed on British families. What makes her even madder is when British citizens move to Europe and later return to make use of the “Surinder Singh route”, an option that would no longer be available to British citizens in the event the UK leaves the EU.
Paradoxically, the apparently strong rights of third country national family members are “soft” rights, though; their right to live in the UK or another European country depends on their continuing relationship with their European family member and the continued qualifying economic activity of that family member. If the relationship ends, perhaps due to domestic violence or bereavement, or if the European family member loses his or her job, the third country national loses his or her right of residence and will potentially have to leave. European law has evolved to offer some protection in these circumstances but Theresa May and David Cameron have made abundantly clear that these are the rights which are most under threat.
So, Brexit would be good for my business although probably not for many others. But in truth I am a fervent, committed European and I am strongly opposed to leaving the European Union. Like many immigration and other social welfare lawyers, I yearn for my own redundancy.
Every time the Coalition or Conservative Governments have ratcheted the rules again or added another unpleasant layer to their “hostile environment” we have seen an increase in demand for our services not just from migrants and their families but also from employers, universities and now landlords, all of whom have been co-opted as de facto border guards. Everyone needs an immigration lawyer these days. If all we cared about was the bottom line we would be thanking Theresa May.
My fear is exactly that Brexit would cause a surge in demand for my services. The demand would come not just from well off French, German and Italian citizens that have made their homes in this country. They will probably be alright in the end, although it would be expensive and inconvenient. The real demand would come from the Romanians and Bulgarians that the Home Office already disproportionately targets in Operation Nexus and from the third country nationals from all over the world whose lives would be ripped apart by stricter and stricter rules.
Some may consider this a price worth paying. I know the misery that exile and separation cause. I would not wish it on anyone.
Colin Yeo is a barrister at Garden Court Chambers and editor of the Freedom of Movement blog.