Politicians on all sides have been falling over themselves to praise former Immigration Minister Mark Harper for his ‘honourable’ decision to resign, following the discovery that his cleaner was an ‘illegal immigrant.’ Harper’s colleagues, all of them honourable men and women themselves, have been been at pains to point out how correct and even noble he was for setting himself such high standards of personal conduct and living up to them.
The opposition have joined in the praise. Last week I watched the unctuous Keith Vaz – a politician whose own honour and integrity is certainly open to question – singing Harper’s praises on BBC News, with a touching note of non-partisan wistfulness.
Personally, I have a rather different perspective. After all, we are talking about a man who mocked ‘five times failed asylum seeker ‘ Esam Amin and told him to ‘go home’ on Andrew Neil’s chat show; who pushed through the Home Office’s ‘go home or face arrest’ vans before they were withdrawn by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for using misleading arrest statistics – the very least that could be said about a flagrantly populist campaign that might have come straight from the BNP’s playbook.
Harper also played a key role in steering through Parliament Theresa May’s horrendous Immigration Bill, which among other things seeks to remove or reduce the right to appeal against deportations, and obliges landlords, employers, and GPs to look out for ‘illegal immigrants’ in order to deny them housing, jobs, health care and even bank accounts – all of which was described by Harper as ‘ fair to British citizens and legitimate immigrants and tough on those who abuse the system and flout the law’.
So the fact that the great immigration enforcer did not check the immigration status of his ‘illegal immigrant’ cleaner who he was paying out of MP’s expenses is a neat dramatic outcome that owes more to The Thick of It or maybe Ben Jonson than it does to Shakespeare. And the possibility that he himself might face a legal probe is an especially pleasing touch.
But schadenfreude apart, what of the ‘illegal immigrant’ who the noble Harper suggests may have duped him into thinking that she did not have ‘indefinite leave to remain?’ We now know that her name is Isabella Acevado, that she is Colombian, that she was working as a cleaner for various MPs in the same block where Harper had his flat, all of whom, one assumes, were also claiming expenses to have her clean their flats and iron their shirts for them.
By now Acevado will almost certainly have been arrested and may already be awaiting deportation, perhaps at Yarl’s Wood or one of the other ‘removal centres’ that the British public and political class take such delight in. Amid all the talk about Harper she has been an invisible figure, as most ‘illegal immigrants’ are.
We have no idea when or why Acevado came here, but she must have managed to convince someone at the Home Office that her life and safety were in danger in Colombia – no mean feat considering the pervading ‘culture of disbelief’ that permeates the asylum process, not to mention the broader political culture of rejectionism towards ‘bogus’ asylum seekers in general.
In the case of Colombia, such scepticism has been difficult to maintain, given the ongoing political and drug-related violence that has been raging across the country for some 45 years. We know from Harper’s resignation letter that Acevado had a Home Office letter granting her indefinite leave to remain dated 26 January 2006, even though he says that he has been ‘unable to locate’ this letter or any other documents pertaining to Acevado’s case.
Why don’t know why the subsidiary protection that Acevado got from the Home Office was granted or why it lapsed, and no one seems to have bothered to ask. Had she misinterpreted temporary leave to remain as ‘indefinite?’ Or had the Home Office decided that her life and safety were no longer in danger and that Colombia is now a safe country for her to return to?
It this is the case, then such a judgment would be at odds with Foreign Office travel advice on Colombia last December, which warned British travelers to avoid particular parts of the country altogether, and to be more generally mindful ‘continuing indiscriminate attacks’ on government buildings and public infrastructure, car bombs, grenade attacks from leftwing guerrilla organizations, in addition to ‘a high risk of kidnap from both terrorist and criminal groups. While Colombians are the primary targets, foreigners can also be targeted.’
The Foreign Office did not mention the kidnappings and murders of union leaders, peasant activists and community leaders by rightwing paramilitary groups and members of the security forces. In 2102, various leftist groups formed a broad political movement called the Marcha Patriótica (MP) in an attempt to provide a voice for the left within mainstream Colombian politics.
Since then 29 of its leaders have been assassinated – an echo of the 1990s when thousands some 4,000 former leftist guerrillas who took advantage of a government amnesty were murdered by hitmen or sicarios recruited by the right.
Only last week the drug cartel-cum-rightwing paramilitary group los Restrajos sent a communiqué announcing an assassination campaign called ‘Plan Pistol’, directed against Patriotic Union candidates for the Senate and House of Representatives. Four candidates were singled out for particular attention, with a bounty equivalent to £15,000 placed on their heads.
The communiqué also singled out MP leaders responsible for ‘ mobilising peasants to go on strikes which impede the good functioning of the government…we have been told that some of them are travelling without state protection schemes and we have been given the details of their daily itineraries, well we hope to have the best results in the first semester of 2014. They should leave the country or we will finish them.’
So that’s the country that Isabella Acevado will be sent back to, while our politicians shake their heads sadly at Mark Harper’s ‘honourable’ downfall, and look for someone ‘legal’ to iron their clothes for them.
And if there is an element of tragedy in this Westminster mini-scandal, it lies that decision, and so many others like it, rather than in the bumbling incompetence and hypocrisy of yet another immigrant-bashing politician.