Politicians of all sides want EU nationals living in the UK to remain but the practicalities are a mystery.
But one consequence of Britain’s departure from the European Union is a bureaucratic task of biblical proportions: The registration of approximately 3 million citizens of other EU countries living in the U.K. who want the right to remain once Britain has left the bloc.
The task, experts say, could become an administrative nightmare and the U.K.’s Home Office is being advised to look to the U.S., with its experience of mass immigrant naturalization programs, for guidance.
Computer says no
British Prime Minister Theresa May wants to resolve the matter as soon as possible, but her offer of a joint guarantee of “reciprocal rights” – of EU citizens in Britain and British citizens in the EU – was rebuffed by Brussels and by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who want any deal to be thrashed out during the wider Brexit talks. May has since resisted calls at home for a unilateral guarantee.
However, most analysts expect a deal to be struck early in the Brexit talks, which will commence after Article 50 is triggered at the end of March.
“We have a population of people, we know they exist, we have estimates of the numbers but not a list of their names; they haven’t necessarily been obliged to be in contact with the government in any way and there is a need for a process for people to come forward, register and be given some form of documentation if they’re eligible for it,” said Madeleine Sumption, director of the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory.
There are few historical precedents for the administrative challenge this will pose the Home Office, Sumption said, but noted parallels with the U.S. naturalization programs that followed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, under which 3 million undocumented migrants applied for legal status. “That would be an interesting thing to look at in terms of a precedent,” Sumption said.
Doris Meissner, who heads the U.S. immigration policy program at Washington D.C.’s Migration Policy Institute and was commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service between 1993 and 2000, said that advances in technology mean that such programs could be carried out more efficiently today, particularly if the government minimized the paperwork required as evidence of residence.
However, even the simplest approach — requiring EU citizens to present at a local office with documentation, to receive a new stamp in their passport denoting their special status — would be “a huge lift” for the Home Office, she said. To minimize the risks of error or fraud, it is likely that people would have to be seen in person, Meissner added.
Current Home Office procedures for those applying for permanent residence, campaigners fear, are not up such a massive task.
A report earlier this month by the British Future think tank estimated that, at the current rate at which the government processes permanent residence cards — 18,064 were granted in 2015 — it would take more than 150 years to clear the 2.8 million applications it predicted could be received. The report, led by MPs from across the political spectrum, recommended a cut-off date of the day Article 50 is triggered — likely to be in March 2017 — with EU citizens resident prior to that date entitled to apply to stay.
Anne-Laure Donskoy, a French academic researcher, resident in the U.K. for 30 years, and the founding co-chair of The 3 Million, a pressure group set up to lobby for the residency rights of Britain’s remaining EU citizens, said the group was predicting trouble for the Home Office in its efforts to grant these people the documentation required so that they can be recognized by public services and border guards.
“This department has always been understaffed … It will take time and cost dear to recruit and train a lot of new officers to meet this task adequately,” she said.
“For those who [currently] qualify to apply for permanent residency, it is not just five years’ worth of documentation that is required,” she said. “If you have been here longer, you also need to provide evidence of: any welfare benefits you have ever received, with accurate amounts per person; justification [such as] travel documentation, letters from employers, any leave of absence from the country over 24 hours. We feel this is grossly unreasonable … We would like a very much simplified process.”
The Home Office is trialing new online application forms for EU citizens seeking permanent residence, to make the process more straightforward, but this project pre-dates the Brexit vote. Precisely what the government is doing to prepare for the daunting task ahead remains unclear.
Meanwhile, according to a consultation document published Tuesday, plans to combat electoral fraud could include voluntary, local registers of those without voting rights, which would include non-U.K. nationals and could assist in the registration process.
The Home Office spokesman declined to comment on whether advice had been sought from the U.S. government, whether the registration program would require a network of local offices, whether additional staff were being brought on board to cope, or whether fees would be required.
“There are a number of options as to how EU migration might work once we have left including regarding documentation,” the spokesman said. “We are considering those various options and it would be wrong to set out further positions at this stage.”