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It's My Job To Deport These People - But Our Leaders Won't Let Me
An Arabic woman answered. I showed her my warrant card and said: 'I'm from Immigration, looking for Mr. Mohammed.' She shook her head and said: 'Sorry, he not here.' 'Do you know where he is?' She nodded. 'Oh yes. He is in Egypt.' 'But he claimed asylum because he was fleeing Egypt.' 'I know. But he went back for family wedding. He should be back next week,' she smiled.
You couldn't make it up but, when it comes to immigration, that's par for the course.
I've worked on the front line of the service for nearly 20 years, the past six in enforcement, trying to track down illegal immigrants.
Now, as part of the panic measures instituted by Charles Clarke, the former Home Secretary, most of my colleagues and I are trying to hunt down 1,023 'lost' foreigners who have gone to ground after mistakenly being released from prison without being considered for deportation.
While the media has referred to it as a fiasco, we who work at the sharp end tend to use more robust language. As we struggle to sort out the Home Office's mess, we're asking the same question as everyone else: How did it come to this?
I know when things started going wrong. In the past, every immigration office had a 'prison corner' where a manageable number of cases could be handled by experienced staff. But a few years ago, some bright spark decided to centralize the entire operation.
The new Criminal Casework team, based at the Immigration Directorate's headquarters in Croydon, was soon unable to deal with its workload as the number of foreigners in our prisons soared.
And the situation was exacerbated by another festering problem.
Much has been said about how different sections of the Home Office fail to talk to each other. It's far worse than a communication breakdown - it's a complete lack of trust between departments.
Police and prison officers roll their eyes at the mention of the word 'Immigration', and it is easy to see why. Every day police tell us of another Chinese national arrested for selling pirated DVDs.
They want to know what can be done. Nothing, we tell them, except to impound any copies of Shrek for our kids to watch.
On thousands of occasions, no action is taken. Deportation, as we shall see, is simply not an option.
Usually, only petty criminals go free. But the death of PC Sharon Beshenivsky shows just how serious the repercussions can be.
Mustaf Jama, one of those wanted in connection with her murder, is a Somali with a long, serious criminal record. Police notified immigration staff several times about him with a view to deportation.
I can understand the fury in police circles once this information was revealed. In fact, it's rumored that police sources were responsible for releasing details of the current immigration catastrophe into the public domain. If this is true, I wouldn't blame them.
Jama was considered for deportation but his lawyers claimed his lawless, war-ravaged country was too dangerous for him to return to. The Home Office agreed.
But, ultimately, it boils down to a lack of political will because it is possible to deport an unwanted immigrant such as Jama to the safe area of Somaliland in the north-east of the country.
Deportation need only be to an individual's home country, not his front door.
When it comes to those, like Jama, who are happy to flout the laws of our country, I don't see why we should bother ourselves over niceties. And deportations to Somaliland have taken place.
The precedent exists.
But being from a wartorn land isn't the only way to avoid being kicked out of the country. Illegal immigrants almost always destroy their passports before they arrive here because without proper travel documents they cannot be returned. We could provide travel documents, but some foreign governments insist that the only ones they will accept are passports - issued by them. If those governments refuse to issue passports, it becomes impossible to send their people back home.
For example, the Chinese government says it is inconceivable for anyone to want to leave its socialist utopia, therefore illegal immigrants from China can't exist, can they? Such twisted logic leaves large numbers of Chinese citizens trapped in Britain. The 21 cockle-pickers who died at Morecambe Bay in 2004 were just such cases. The police and immigration authorities knew about them but were powerless to act.
This is why we have a series of large national groups against which the immigration service is unable to use its only effective weapon - deportation.
Britain's negotiations with the governments of the offending countries have so little urgency that you might think our political masters aren't that concerned.
You'd be right - they're more preoccupied with presentation and are prepared to cook the books on immigration and asylum if it suits them. Massaging figures to meet Tony Blair's targets means, quite simply, letting illegal entrants go deliberately undetected.
In my profession, the practice is known as 'tipping the balance'.
Immigration officers are advised not to record the discovery of illegals from the 'wrong' countries, such as Somalia, Turkey and Iraq, in case they claim asylum and spoil the politicians' boasts about reducing the numbers.
I've been on jobs where we actually ran away from illegal asylum seekers, not the other way round.
Anyone who works for the immigration service knows Charles Clarke's promises of swift and clinical deportation for foreign offenders were a joke. With a whole industry of immigration lawyers and 'advisers' doing very nicely out of keeping deportable foreign nationals in Britain, there's no such thing as a straightforward case - they all become 'special' and worthy of the Home Secretary's personal attention.
At every turn, the illegal immigrant has a right to appeal. If that fails, he can claim asylum, then apply to stay in Britain under the European Convention on Human Rights. As a last resort, many end up in sham marriages to UK or EU citizens. In the immigration game, foreigners hold all the aces.
Now we've been told to round up the bad guys. Easier said than done. All we have is scarce, stale intelligence. Often the trail is stone-cold - we won't be able to pick it up until they reoffend.
While we strain to find those 1,000, there's only a skeleton staff left at my London office dealing with the rest of the immigration workload. Does that sound like a system 'under control'? It sounds like a recipe for future disaster to me.
The title of the mission to find the missing 1,000 is Operation Scully.
That's fitting because when it comes to Government spin on immigration, the X-Files motto is a good guide: Believe Nothing. Trust No One.
Source: The Mail on Sunday.