Editor's note: This article is one in a two-part series on the UK's immigration problems.
LONDON, UK — Last month, a fleet of vans spread across London plastered with images of handcuffs under the blunt tagline “In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest.”
Days after they hit the streets, uniformed border agency officers began making identification spot checks at subway stations in the capital.
On Thursday, the Home Office — which spearheaded the campaign — began live tweeting arrests of suspected visa overstayers, complete with photos of suspects with faces blurred, an #immigrationoffenders hashtag and ongoing tallies of the day’s arrest count.
Read more: UK: Go home? Come off it!
The publicity stunts seem designed to project the image of a lean, mean deportation machine serious about cleaning up Britain’s immigration system.
In fact, behind the tough talk lies an agency in disarray.
The UK Border Agency, or UKBA, the Home Office branch tasked with immigration, is drowning in a backlog of 500,000 unprocessed immigration cases.
That includes asylum seekers, people trying to join family members who have emigrated to the UK, as well as British-born spouses, students, businesspeople and others trying to lawfully navigate the arcane immigration system — be they first-time applicants or those who’ve lived and worked here for years.
For immigrants residing here illegally — the targets of the recent campaign — a parliamentary committee concluded there was no comprehensive program to trace the whereabouts of people suspected of overstaying their visas.
As a result, tens of thousands have simply gone missing from the system, while the UKBA expends scarce manpower trying to track down people who may have left years ago.
It will take the agency 37 years to clear its caseload at its current rate, according to the parliamentary committee.
A more accurate slogan for those vans might have been: Send yourselves home, please, as we most likely won’t get around to it.
Wait times for processing have spiraled out of control. Applications that the UKBA’s own guidelines say should be processed in three to 12 weeks are taking as long as a year.
During that time, applicants remain in limbo, without passports or, in some cases, permission to work.
“Once you send in your application, your life is basically suspended,” says Jan Brulc, communications manager at Migrants’ Rights Network, a London-based NGO.
“The stories you hear are just horrible — people who aren’t able to work because they don’t have their documents, people who don’t receive information from the Home Office about what’s happening to their applications.”
The loss of travel documents can have devastating personal and professional consequences. The UKBA holds onto passports for months while decisions are pending. Getting a passport back before the process is done requires canceling the application, going to the back of the line and starting again.
The delay affects people from all walks of life, from those scrounging to make a living at minimum wage jobs to those in the most elite sectors of business and education.
Originally from India, Arpita — not her real name — moved here in 2002 to pursue a master’s degree, then a doctorate, then work in international aid. She handed her passport to the UKBA to apply for permanent residency in October.
In late January, with the application still pending, she received a call from her sister in India that their mother was terminally ill with liver disease. After frantic phone calls to the Home Office produced no reply, she visited the Croydon office herself.
Although she no longer cared about the status of her application, she was told she couldn’t have her passport back until a decision was made.
That was the afternoon of Jan. 30. Her mother died that night.
The next morning, she learned she had been granted permanent residency.
She’s now eligible to apply for UK citizenship. After her experience, however, Britain no longer feels like home. She requested that GlobalPost not use her real name because of what she describes as the backlash toward migrants in the country.
“The current political environment and how they treat migrants — I don’t feel part of it,” she said. “I waited for permanent residency for 10 years and now I feel like I don’t want it anymore.”
Other applicants GlobalPost contacted for this story did not want to speak publicly about their experiences for fear it might jeopardize their applications.
They’re waiting in a very long line.
Net migration to the UK was 216,000 in 2011, the most recent year for which figures are available. The government wants to bring the annual figure below 100,000 by 2015.
Last month, parliament identified 510,000 open and unresolved cases spread across 12 different channels throughout the UKBA. The Home Office says the actual number is 40,000 cases lower.
A Channel 4 documentary aired in April found the agency in chaos.
Reporters working undercover at the UKBA’s Sheffield office found cases shoved unalphabetized in stacks of neglected crates. One asylum case submitted in 1998 waited 14 years for resolution.
Tasked with a March 31 deadline to clear its backlog, the office reshuffled its classification system to give the appearance of progress, without making a significant dent in the work.
The Home Affairs Committee publicly confronted UKBA in March with charges of incompetent case management and fudging public data to hide mistakes.
“We are astonished that the agency provided this committee and its predecessors with information that turned out to be patently wrong on so many occasions over the last six years,” a blistering report read.
“The agency appears to have tried to sweep its mistakes under the carpet in the hope that they would remain unnoticed.”
More from GlobalPost: Are America's secretive ways destroying its relationship with Europe?
The government says it’s taking action. In response to the committee’s findings, Home Secretary Teresa May announced she would dissolve the UKBA and bring its work back within the Home Office.
The agency would be split into two units: an administrative sector to process visa applications and an enforcement arm to deal with those violating their visa terms.
"It will take a long time to clear the backlogs we inherited — but through the changes we have made we are in a much stronger position to do so,” Immigration Minister Mark Harper told GlobalPost in a written statement.
In the four months since May’s announcement, however, the UKBA website remains up and running and UKBA badges are still on officers’ uniforms. A statement posted May 1 on the UKBA website says the content of its website will be moved “over time” to the main UK government site.
Those looking for reassurance the decision to reform the agency wasn’t just political window dressing won’t find it at the Home Office.
“Most of us will still be doing the same job in the same place with the same colleagues for the same boss and with the same mission to keep Britain's streets safe and our borders secure,” Home Office Permanent Secretary Mark Sedwill wrote in a leaked internal memo.