LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Britain’s bishops have condemned the proposed immigration bill being considered by Parliament to deal with the post-Brexit era.
The United Kingdom officially left the European Union in January, meaning that EU citizens no longer have the automatic right to freely enter and work in the country.
The legislation will create a points-based system, similar to the one used in Australia, and introduce an income threshold to bar “low skill” immigrants from the country.
EU citizens already in the UK will be exempt from these requirements but must register through the government’s “Settlement Scheme.”
In a rare joint statement from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Statement, the bishops said the Immigration Bill “will drastically alter people’s opportunities to build their lives here and contribute to society.”
The letter – signed by Scottish Bishop William Nolan and English Bishop Paul McAleenan, the heads of their conferences’ migration committees – noted around 60 percent of Europeans living in the UK are Catholics.
The bishops said that despite disagreeing in principle with making European citizens apply for their existing rights in the UK, the Catholic Church is working to raise awareness of the Settlement Scheme and help those who are at risk of losing their status.
“However, no scheme will reach all European citizens in the UK. Even if a small proportion do not make an application by the June 2021 deadline, this could leave thousands of people without legal status. We encourage amendments to the bill that will create a meaningful safety-net including options to extend the deadline,” the letter said.
The bishops also recommended using the need to create new immigration rules as an opportunity to make “several positive changes” to the UK’s immigration system, including Introducing a time limit on immigration detention, removing financial barriers that keep families apart, repealing the offence of illegal working, and reforming the rules surrounding clergy visas.
“The UK remains the only European country without a time limit on detention. This has devastating consequences for the wellbeing of vulnerable individuals who find themselves detained including some victims of torture, survivors of trafficking and people fleeing religious persecution in their home countries. It also has a significant impact on families who are separated with no indication of when they might be reunited,” the bishops wrote.
They said the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted serious health risks in crowded detention centers.
“While we are grateful for the emergency steps that were taken to reduce infection and save lives, only a significant permanent reduction in the use of detention will allow us to properly protect people’s health and human dignity in the long-term,” the bishops added.
They also said the minimum income threshold for family visas “unjustly separates” tens of thousands of couples, parents and children, and the end of free movement within the EU “will result in even more families being kept apart by this policy.”
“Some key workers who have played a vital role during the COVID-19 pandemic are among those who cannot be reunited with their families because they do not meet the minimum income threshold. This separation not only has serious implications on family life, but also has a direct impact on the development and wellbeing of children who are isolated from their parents in another country,” the letter continues.
The bishops said repealing laws against “illegal working” is necessary to help battle modern slavery.
“We know that fear of prosecution currently deters people from escaping abusive employment practices or presenting themselves to the police. One particularly important step towards protecting people from exploitation would therefore be to repeal the offence of illegal working, so that no victim is at risk of being punished,” the bishops’ letter said.
Turning to clergy visas, the bishops said that new rules imposed last year have more than doubled the costs of parishes seeking priests to cover clergy vacations, illnesses, and other absences.
“These supply placements are essential as they allow Catholics to continue attending Mass, while also keeping parish activities running smoothly,” the bishops said.
“Furthermore, seminaries that conduct formation in English are not necessarily recognized by the Home Office as meeting the English language requirement under the Tier 2 route, meaning that many priests who have been educated to post-graduate level in English are nevertheless required to take a language test with extra logistical and cost implications,” they added.
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