Tuesday, 19 May 2009

The illegal immigration 'war' as entertainment

Sky1 carries a new, hour-long series called UK Border Force, during which we're invited into the operations of the Border Agency at airports, on the street and during organized raids, presumably in order to understand the scourge represented by illegal immigration. During one segment, a team of uniformed immigration agents descends upon a street corner in order to profile people of colour carry out random stop-and-searches. The head of the team boasts that they're able to identify potential search subjects by their shifty behaviour, and by 'shifty behaviour' he means walking and not being White. Scores of well-dressed, White people pass by looking bemused, as the team confronts darker-skinned men and challenges them to show proof of leave to remain in the UK.

Now, I have to confess, I didn't know this type of operation existed. I've always known of the checks done as part of vehicle registration and insurance stops, but the idea that I might walk down the street and be asked to produce evidence that I have a right to be here sticks pretty high up my craw. In general, I believe in not making a fuss about the reasonable measures it takes to keep us safe from legitimate threats. I pretty much hang out in airport screening points smiling at people while I carry my entire outfit in my arms. But this kind of operation is blatant profiling. Because while you might be able to get away with this kind of targeting at airports or other checkpoints where people are subject to some kind of screening process anyway, to interrupt my everyday activity, to confiscate my time and attention and make me feel threatened while others breeze on past me simply because I have darker skin, well - as Nan Taylor** would say - what a f**king liberty. (**video clip with strong language)

There are certainly undocumented people living in the UK who do not fit the particular brief by which these officers seem to be operating. And even were that not the case, if the policy is meant to be random, it has to be shown to be random; which means that if you need to stop and interview people of other ethnicities in order to give the appearance of fairness and non-discrimination, then that's what you have to do. I would suspect that you get more cooperation from the public in general when they believe they are being fairly treated, and that must advance your ends.

I'm honestly not sure what the point of this programme is anyway. I've always enjoyed similar shows like the Airport-type series that feature travellers and airport staff who find themselves in all kinds of conundrums. Because they are entertaining, yes, but we might also learn from them what types of behaviours get you in and out of jams while travelling. The same might be said of police shows, which are also meant, it's true, to show us what the work of the police force involves. But police shows set up a very clear us/them dichotomy. They involve situations where a crime is being or has been committed, and we're meant to admire the men and women who protect us from this element that would do us harm. And it seems this Border Agency show is meant to do the same thing, except immigration is not synonymous with harm, even though the show sets it up that way. Not every person of colour featured on the show is trying to slip through the borders in order to live off taxpayers. But these shows are in danger of encouraging that perspective, (one might argue that the police shows are in similar danger, but that's another post), especially with continuous references to agents being "on the front lines", as if by merely presenting my passport with my brown, foreign hand I represent a potential threat to citizens of the UK.

(Notice too the words to which they've chosen to give prominence on the website graphic: enforcement, asylum seeker, counterfeit, illegal worker, work permit, student visa. Is this the only business of the Border Agency? And what is the association of work permits and student visas with 'counterfeit', 'illegal worker' or even 'asylum seeker', which in these parts might as well be called 'baby eater'? They all fall neatly under the same column, as if we're meant to think, without qualification, that foreign workers and students are threats to security. Well, perhaps we are.)

I've not decided to write the entire program off. I see glimmers of an effort to be balanced, and there's one woman agent on the show whose manner in dealing with all candidates I've developed some admiration for. But she's one person. And one person does not offset institutionalized injustice if it exists. So I''ve got my eyes and ears trained on this one. I'll keep you posted.

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