Interview

‘I moved to the UK and was appalled by its immigration system, now I’m fighting for reform’

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All students should study immigration law, argues Durham prof

If you want to feel crap about your achievements, read the CV of the dean of Durham Law School, Thom Brooks.

In a narrative spanning 31-pages we discover Brooks has done pretty much everything an academic can do, and now teaches a multitude of subjects including constitutional law, jurisprudence and crime. A jack-of-all-trades and a master of none? Over to Brooks:

In my opinion, too many academics are overly narrow, working as if any area of law exists entirely on its own. I think it’s important to know how the pieces of the puzzle fit together. It’s true I’ve taught a lot of subjects, but I’ve won pretty much every award that Durham has for teaching. I’d be bored if I taught the same thing every year; I’d fear I’d stale.

Above all else Brooks’ big passion is immigration law. “It’s not something that I planned on having an interest in,” he recalls, “but my experience of being an immigrant and seeing how immigrants are portrayed in the media has been a huge catalyst for me.”

Born in the United States, Brooks travelled across the Atlantic to take up a lectureship at Newcastle University. He recalls a particularly grim autumn night in 2009 prior to obtaining permanent residency: “I was reading through my papers and saw that I had to do a citizenship test. I didn’t know anyone that had done it and I hadn’t done one before. So I went online, did a practice version and, well, I failed.”

That same night, Brooks turned on his television to watch Question Time and, lo and behold, British National Party (BNP) leader Nick Griffin (since expelled) was on the panel. “Everyone was talking about how easy it is to get into the UK,” he reminisces, “I was shouting at the TV because I knew it wasn’t true.”

Ex-BNP leader Nick Griffin

Teaching and reforming immigration law has become a “personal mission” of Brooks, with the “arbitrary” citizenship test pretty high on his hit list. “All it does is demand facts from people that no one in the country knows or needs to know — do you know the size of the London Eye in feet?”

Though Brooks has a lot of sympathy for immigrants, he’s far from an open borders guy. He says:

I want to be a moderately progressive voice on immigration. You have a lot of volume and air coming from people who have never gone through the system, and I thought: ‘there has to be some kind of counter to this.’

Brooks — who has apparently made 700+ media appearances on TV, radio and print — believes that we can have a better immigration system without it necessarily being a more open one. A good example of this is his recommendation for a migration impacts reduction fund — a £25 fee on immigration applications paid to local authorities where public services are struggling to cope with the extra people. This money can be used to pay for more nurses, buses, teaching assistants, etc.

Given how high immigration is on the public agenda, University of Sheffield PhD graduate Brooks is surprised and disappointed his law school is one of few to offer teaching on it.

And even those that do do so in an overly focused way. Many law schools that offer immigration law modules concentrate on asylum and refugee law. Just 16% of people coming to the UK will claim asylum and of that group 60% will have their claims rejected. “What little choice students do have in learning the subject is very narrow,” he concludes.

If you do have the opportunity to study immigration law, former Labour Party advisor Brooks would certainly encourage it. Is that, we asked, because our impending withdrawal from the European Union may present an opportunity for immigration law reform?

Brooks isn’t so sure. Fearing immigration will be one of many important topics piled onto Theresa May’s Brexit-shaped plate, Brooks says: “it won’t get the attention it deserves. The opportunity is there, but the government is too busy, and frankly too weak, to take it.”

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