“Promiscuity or sexual preference within the law. Drinking or gambling. Eccentricity, including beliefs, appearance and lifestyle.” These are just a few of the criteria that Britain can use to deny citizenship, if “by the scale and persistence of their behaviour, [applicants have] made themselves notorious in their local or the wider community.”

The Home Office’s rules cover all manner of sins, from the serious to things like a police caution or failing to pay local taxes. Although the “notoriety clause” is almost never used, its very existence gives the Home Office wide discretion, says Nick Nason, an immigration lawyer at Edgewater Legal. The number of rejections on the vague grounds of “good character” has more than doubled from 2012 to 5,525 in 2016, the latest year for which data are available, as we recently reported. The main cause for the surge seems to be petty misdeeds.

In one case, a Botswanan who had served with distinction in the British army failed because he had broken the speed limit on a motorway (the decision was later reversed in court). Solange Valdez-Symonds, head of the Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens, an advice service, has noticed an increase in children being refused because of their parents’ mistakes.

Applying these rules more strictly marks a major shift. A decade ago Britain was one of Europe’s most welcoming countries. It admitted 2.3m immigrants between 2008 and 2011, the highest tally on the continent.

And it was remarkably generous when giving out passports, too. In 2009, the first year for which continental data are available, Britain granted citizenship to 4.8% of its foreign residents. That was nearly twice the average rate for countries in the European Union—and well ahead of France (3.6%), Italy (1.7%), Spain (1.5%) and Germany (1.3%).

The workers attracted by such hospitality were hardly scroungers. Between 2001 and 2011 they contributed about £25bn more in taxes than they used in benefits, according to research from Christian Dustmann and Tommaso Frattini of University College London.                               

Yet that hospitality has soured. In 2010 the Conservative government vowed to cut annual net migration from 250,000 to below 100,000. Two years later Theresa May, the home secretary, promised a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants, starting with an advertising campaign telling them to “go home”. Despite this, net migration has remained at around 250,000 a year.

The bureaucrats who heeded Mrs May’s urging to make life hard for immigrants contributed to the recent Windrush scandal, in which people from the Caribbean who had been granted indefinite leave to remain in 1971 lost their jobs or were detained, since they could not prove that they had been in the country continuously since then.

The Windrush generation—named after one of the first passenger ships that brought them over—are far from the only victims of the hostile climate. The Home Office’s data show that between 2013 and 2017 it has reduced the annual number of citizenship grants by more than 40%, from 208,095 to 123,229. The figure for “settlement” (which confers an indefinite leave to remain) has dropped by nearly 60%, from 154,701 to 63,941.

The rules for settlement are even vaguer than the standards for citizenship. Home Office guidelines instruct officials to deny indefinite leave to remain if “it is undesirable to let an applicant stay because of their character, behaviour or associations”, without offering further explanation.

Engineers, scientists and healthcare workers have faced deportation because of minor irregularities, such as small errors in their tax returns, according to a report in the Guardian. In some cases they have been told to leave the country within 14 days. These judgements can even fall on people born in Britain, who do not qualify automatically for citizenship if their parents had not previously gained settlement. Such children are quite literally “citizens of nowhere”, to borrow one of Mrs May's catchphrases.

Many eligible candidates have been discouraged from applying for settlement or citizenship altogether, creating a vast pool of people whom the state wrongly views as illegal entrants, according to Satbir Singh, the chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, a legal-aid and advocacy group.

Another hurdle is that the cost of applying has been steadily increasing. Since 2006 the price of a citizenship test has risen five-fold to £1,282, according to the Migration Observatory at Oxford University, earning the Home Office more than £100m a year. A law passed in 2012 increased the financial burden further by limiting legal-aid payments to asylum seekers or crime victims. The same year also saw the introduction of an income requirement for British citizens seeking to sponsor settlement for their relatives: a minimum of £18,600 a year, rising to £22,400 if the relative wants to bring an accompanying child, plus £2,400 for every extra sibling.

“We have gone from having a culture where the authorities didn’t erect barriers to citizenship to having one with bureaucratic and other obstacles,” explains Colin Yeo, an immigration lawyer at Garden Court Chambers. “The change in ‘good character’ rulings,” he laments, “is a moral change.”

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See “No sex, please, we’re the Home Office", which appeared in the May 5th print edition