Special Briefing: An Immigration Scandal That Could Threaten a Prime Minister

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May hosts a meeting with leaders and representatives of Caribbean countries at 10 Downing Street on April 17, 2017, in London. Theresa May is meeting Caribbean leaders as the government faces severe criticism over the treatment of the "Windrush" generation of British residents.

Source Daniel Leal-Olivas - WPA Pool/Getty

Why you should care

This could have big implications for a lot more people after Brexit.

This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.


What happened? What began as a trickle of individual stories of mistreatment — elderly legal residents of the U.K. who emigrated from the Caribbean long ago being denied medical treatment, evicted, fired or detained — has now become a massive scandal, felling at least one prominent politician and potentially threatening the job of Prime Minister Theresa May, who was the primary architect of the U.K.’s “hostile environment” policy toward noncitizens. May has apologized to Caribbean leaders and promised an investigation into why the Windrush generation, as they’re called, were targeted … but some are skeptical that she’ll make real changes.

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Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness (center) speaks to the media on Downing Street surrounded by other representatives and leaders of Commonwealth countries following a meeting with Theresa May on April 17, 2018, in London.

Source Jack Taylor/Getty

Why does it matter? While press and public attention to the Windrush scandal have seen assurances made for this wave of immigration cases, hundreds of South Asian immigrants living in Britain protested in London this week. They’re frustrated by lengthy administrative delays on applications for the right to legally remain or by being turned down as threats to national security over mistakes made on tax forms.  While British concerns about immigration are widely thought to have been a driver of the Brexit vote, the treatment of Windrush cases has caused some to worry that the millions of EU citizens legally residing in the U.K. will see similarly inhumane treatment after the U.K. leaves the EU.


Don’t call it a comeback. The “Windrush generation” is the name for those who arrived in the U.K. between 1948 and 1971 from Caribbean members of the Commonwealth of Nations, invited there to fill labor shortages after World War II. The name comes from one ship, the MV Empire Windrush, which brought 492 passengers to the shores of Essex. After the 1971 Immigration Act, it became harder for Commonwealth citizens to settle in the U.K. Those who arrived in the country from Commonwealth nations before 1973 were granted leave to remain and given legal residency, as were their families. But they were given no paperwork to prove it, and without records — a Home Office employee says vital landing cards recording these entries were destroyed in 2010 — and sometimes without personal documentation, many find themselves with no way to prove their status. No one knows how many Windrush generation residents there are, but estimates are in the thousands.


A history of hostility. Prime Minister May, who previously served as Home Secretary, is now under fire for presiding over tweaks to an immigration system she herself said was designed to be “hostile” and reduce immigration numbers. That included empowering doctors, landlords and employers to review the immigration status of their patients, tenants and employees, and sending vans reading “Go home or face arrest” through Britain’s streets. Even as prime minister, May reportedly rebuffed calls to relax quotas for doctors coming to staff the National Health Service, despite huge shortages of qualified medical personnel.

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Jamaican immigrants were welcomed by officials after the ex-troopship HMT Empire Windrush landed them at Tilbury, England.

Source Getty

One head has rolled. Home Secretary Amber Rudd resigned after it was leaked that she had known about deportation targets of undocumented migrants, despite her claims otherwise. Her replacement, Sajid Javid, is the son of Pakistani immigrants who began his tenure rejecting the phrase “hostile environment” in favor of “compliant environment” — though few think the laws themselves will significantly change. When he first heard about the Windrush scandal, Javid said he thought “that could be my mum, it could be my dad, it could be my uncle, it could be me.” Now, not only is he dealing with at least 3,000 potential Windrush cases, but he’ll have to design a smooth post-Brexit strategy to handle EU migrants.

But no one knows what that system will look like. Post-Brexit migration has been a thorny and complicated issue since the day Britain decided to leave the European Union. The central question — who the U.K. should let in and how, and how long they can stay — remains unanswered, though some reports suggest the country could make the EU an offer to keep a version of the current free-movement regime in place. That would anger hard-liners though, who say Brexit is a chance to curb what they see as out of control migration. Party lines are even hardening around the Windrush issue, with May’s Conservatives voting this week against allowing the opposing Labour Party to see documents related to the scandal. 


What Would It Take for Theresa May to Go? by Nesrene Malik at New Statesman 

“She must go, and with her a toxic immigration policy concerned not with making the country a better place for all, but with posturing to the British people’s worst fears and instincts about immigration.”

Windrush Is Just the Start by Guy Walters in The Spectator

“The slips are a hugely valuable piece of social history. It is no exaggeration to claim that they are of national importance, and yet some myopic minister thought they should be shredded.”


David Lammy Criticises Treatment of the Windrush Generation

“This is a day of national shame and it has come about because of a hostile environment policy that was begun under her prime minister [Theresa May]. Let’s just call it as it is. If you lay down with dogs you get fleas.”

Watch on The Guardian’s YouTube Channel.

A Member of the Windrush Generation Speaks About the Fear of Deportation

“For someone to come and tell you haven’t got the right to work and reside in Britain, that is wrong.”

Watch on ITV’s YouTube Channel.


What’s the damage? Theresa May has promised to set forth the terms of a compensation scheme for those negatively affected by the Windrush scandal, perhaps hoping to avoid being sued for damages by those forced out of work, denied medical treatment or put in deportation proceedings. But some law firms, skeptical that the compensation will be adequate, are already at work preparing claims for those who’ve been wrongly deported, refused entry or denied basic services. 

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