Sairah Javed sits at a desk in a small office crammed with books on immigration and human rights law. As the solicitor at The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), it’s her job to run the free weekly helpline for UNISON members seeking immigration advice.
“We pride ourselves on giving independent, honest advice to members,” Sairah says. “You can seek advice for any aspect of the immigration sphere, and not just for yourself – for a family member or a spouse.
“Sometimes people already have solicitors and are looking for a second opinion, and some people are self-representing and might be stuck on a particular aspect of an application. The advice line can help.”
The UK is home to many, many people who feel their lives are at risk
JCWI is an expert organisation with more than 50 years of experience fighting for justice for those who need it. They provide legal advice to individuals and families, challenge unjust laws and campaign for policy change around immigration. The UNISON helpline is just one part of their impressive portfolio.
Set up in 2010, the helpline has been running for almost 10 years and provides a high-quality, confidential service for members. If a member has immigration concerns, their rep can make a referral to JCWI and Sairah will contact the member on the following Tuesday.
Sairah explains how referrals spiked when the Brexit referendum first took place. “We had to advise people even before the EU settlement scheme was brought into place. Brexit has created a lot of anxiety and uncertainty. The UK is home to many, many people who feel their lives are at risk.”
But it’s not just Brexit that’s driven up their caseload. The “hostile environment” championed by Theresa May has created a climate of fear where immigration rules, fees and requirements are constantly changing. And the government has co-opted all employers into becoming ‘border guards’ by threatening them with hefty fines if they employ someone without correct documentation.
The Home Office has never run a campaign to inform people that policies are changing
Sairah talks through a common issue they’ve found around documentation requirements. “We have a situation now where employers have been given the role of immigration officers by the government, alongside landlords and doctors. Employers can demand that someone who has lived and worked in the UK for the last 15-20 years, possibly longer, provide proof that they have the right to work in the UK. The latest Home Office checklist says people must have a stamp in a valid passport, and a biometric residence card.
“Biometric residence cards became mandatory in 2012,” she continues. “Prior to this, it was acceptable to have a stamp in your passport, and if your passport expired, you would just staple your old passport with the stamp into your new passport. But now employers will not accept this. And the Home Office has never run a campaign to inform people that policies are changing and they must convert their stamp to a biometric residence permit.”
To transfer your Indefinite Leave to Remain visa stamp into a biometric residence permit (BRP) is a simple application, but it costs £229 for a decision to be made within six months or £800 for a super priority decision. Added to this cost is the unquantifiable psychological damage of an employer rejecting documentation, which can disrupt not only someone’s employment but their whole life. And nobody is held accountable for this, least of all the Home Office.
Employers can check immigration status at any stage of employment, not just at the time of the initial offer. This is something that JCWI has seen happen when a public service is outsourced and taken over by another company. If an HR review happens, or even in the case of promotion, employers can request documents.
With immigration, the longer you leave it, the more complicated it can become
Sairah recalls the story of a UNISON member whose promotion was overshadowed by visa worries. “Last week I heard from a staff nurse who had a two-year work permit that was sponsored by the trust. Her hours were changing because she was being promoted – still on the same pay, but her hours were going down. There was no action needed at all, but the constant form of anxiety created by the Home Office is gut wrenching. There’s anxiety even when something good is happening to you. People carry a constant fear and worries of ‘Am I doing something wrong?’”
She emphasises JCWI’s sensitivity to how dehumanising the immigration system is. “Our helpline is not time-barred. We don’t allocate a timeframe for calls. Each individual case has its complexity, is difficult, and we will take as much time as a case needs.
“There are some calls that won’t take too long, and some where there are several issues that need to be addressed and you don’t want to rush it. When it comes to immigration, it’s not just about a visa. It’s about whether someone has access to a bank account, work, healthcare, whether they can rent a property.”
JCWI will always do it best to help UNISON members and, depending on the case, can signpost to other forums that may be able to offer further or more specialised support. Sairah recommends that, “If you are looking for immigration advice, always try and seek independent, reputable and honest advice. And seek it as soon as possible, rather than leaving it. Unfortunately with immigration, the longer you leave it, the more complicated it can become.”
If you want advice on your immigration status, or are concerned for a spouse or family member, as a UNISON member you are entitled to free telephone advice from JCWI. Speak to your branch rep and they can make a referral.