It’s key workers like Angela who’ve kept our communities going during the crisis. But, while we’ve applauded them, many are locked out of basic rights and protections simply because of their immigration status. As we recover from the pandemic, stories like Angela’s show us that we need more than a return to normal. We need a New Deal on Migration that treats people with the respect and care we all deserve.

“I love my job.” Angela says, as she recounts how she’s spent the past 20 years working as a carer. “I love looking after people” she says, “it requires a lot of energy, a lot of patience, but you’re always able to laugh with them at the end of the day.”. 

Angela works as an NHS healthcare assistant on a dementia ward in Scotland, where she lives with her two children, aged 12 and 17. She’s one of the vital carers the nation clapped for in the throes of the pandemic, but for over half her time in the UK, Angela lived here without a visa.

Like most people who fall out of status during their time in the UK, Angela came here with all the right papers. 

She arrived in the UK for a healthcare course in North London, for ‘greener pastures’ she smiles. However, when her course ended, like so many recent graduates, she struggled to find stable work - not least because she was also a new mother and having to fit paid work around childcare. She ended up doing a short stint as a factory worker and then as a cleaner, barely scraping together enough money to get by, let alone keep up with the huge costs of renewing her visa - fees currently set at about £2,500 for 2 ½ years leave to remain.

And so Angela lost her right to live in the UK, but at the same time secured more stable work, first as a private home carer, then as a care assistant in nursing and residential homes. It is perhaps ironic that at the very point Angela’s status in the UK was deemed ‘irregular’, she began such essential frontline work. Despite the public service aspect, it was always agencies who employed her, Angela reminds me, and as long as she did the work - long antisocial hours for which she often received less than minimum wage - they didn’t really ask questions.

She never complained about the improper pay, her relentless 14-hour shifts, the verbal abuse she received from managers. 

She feared being detained, deported or separated from her child. She put up with abysmal working conditions because she thought she had no other option. With no union representation, no state support and no legal aid to help her regularise her status - she felt powerless to change anything.  

Then in 2008, Angela fell pregnant. She was on the payroll and like many other people without the right papers, she had a National Insurance number. She thought she would be able to take maternity leave - just like the other mums she knew. However, despite years of employment with her care home and years of paying taxes, her agency quickly made it clear that her papers were now a problem. She wasn’t ‘legal’ they said, and therefore not entitled to any support.

With no recourse to public funds, no right to housing, free healthcare or credit, Angela and her two young children lived hand-to-mouth surviving with the help of friends, charities and churches.

It was ‘a very hard existence’ Angela says - one which she struggled to endure. So after months of panic and hardship, Angela finally reached breaking point and despite the inevitable cost, reached out to lawyers to help her prove her right to remain in the UK. 

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After several lawyers’ assistance, significant debt from legal costs and the accompanying Home Office fees (including an initial £2000 outlay to obtain citizenship for her British-born children) Angela finally managed to acquire temporary leave to remain in the UK. By this point she had moved to Scotland and her new legal status enabled her to apply for a role in the NHS.

She has now been an NHS healthcare assistant in the East of Scotland for the past 5 years, where many of her patients adore her so much they call her their ‘daughter’. She’s trying her best to build a bright future for herself and her two children here, but her temporary status continues to cast a shadow over her life in the UK. 

Despite twenty years of service in our health and care system, Angela is still in a minimum wage job. She still relies on food banks at the end of the month. She’s still drowning in debt. Supporting two teenage children on £18,600 a year is hard at the best of times, but visa extension fees in the thousands every 2 ½ years mean her wages just won’t stretch to keep her ‘regularised’. She’s had to take out loans to pay the fees.

But Angela knows that if she falls out of status or out of work, she’ll fall victim to the government’s ruthless immigration rules - no social safety net, no bank account, no safe housing, no right to earn a living.

And so she must work all the hours she can, even in the middle of a pandemic, even when she’s sick, even with the stress of visa applications and out-of-school children hanging over her. Right now, she has no other choice. 

This can’t be the way we treat people who’ve kept our communities afloat over the past few months, and kept our country running for many more years besides.

Angela, and thousands like her – documented and undocumented - deserve better. They deserve affordable pathways back to regular status. They deserve the right to work and live safely. More than claps and public plaudits, we owe them this. Or as Angela says, “I’m not expecting someone from the government to come and say thank you to me… It would just be nice to be recognised.”

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