It’s not often someone apologises for a plan coming together perfectly. But when Theresa May met with Commonwealth leaders this week, she apologised for denying the "Windrush generation" access to healthcare, work and benefits, before locking them up in detention centres and maybe – she just doesn't know – deporting them.
She hadn’t even planned to attend the meeting – presumably because you don’t normally apologise for success stories. Because the Windrush tragedy is no accident. It’s the system working as intended.
This week it has been impossible to avoid stories of members of the so-called Windrush generation – people from Britain’s former Caribbean colonies who came in their thousands to the UK after the Second World War – being informed they are here illegally.
They are not. The 1971 Immigration Act granted leave to remain to those who had arrived prior to it coming into force in 1973 – albeit, that law was one in a long line of immigration laws passed as the UK’s colonies gained formal independence, designed to actually stem the flow of black and brown Commonwealth citizens making their way here. They have been living lawfully in this country ever since. And despite all the hostility and racist violence they suffered, they put down deep roots and built flourishing lives, families and communities.
Yet here we are.
There has been much talk of mistakes this week, as if the government didn’t know that years of policies to create "a really hostile environment" for undocumented migrants would do just that.
This strategy of making life as unbearable as possible for people without papers so they would voluntarily leave the country was introduced under the 2010 coalition government in the context of a Conservative manifesto commitment to cut net migration by the "tens of thousands". But it followed decades of anti-migrant policy that introduced increasingly restrictive immigration controls, alongside a political narrative that popularised the notion of "bogus asylum seekers" and even prompted former Home Secretary David Blunkett to decry asylum-seeking children "swamping" British schools.
Masterminded by then-Home Secretary Theresa May, an inter-ministerial "Hostile Environment Working Group" set out to embed border controls across society, forcing undocumented migrants to leave of their own accord and deterring other migrants from coming.
Building on older measures to exclude undocumented people from accessing welfare benefits and employment, these policies restrict access to essentials like "non-urgent" medical care, and require a person’s immigration status or nationality to be checked whenever they attempted to access basic services like housing or a bank account.
They impose fines and even criminal sanctions on those who employ or house people without the right papers. And shadowy data-sharing deals have been introduced to allow Home Office immigration enforcement teams to access data collected by schools, hospitals, Job Centres and even homelessness charities – and use it to track people down and deport them.
These policies are forcing undocumented migrants into situations of abject destitution and exploitation as they struggle to live under the radar. And we must not forget how easy it is for anyone to end up undocumented and targeted for deportation. There are lots of ways it could happen: people might lose their papers, fail to scrape together rocketing visa fees, or fail to keep up with ever-changing immigration rules.
Or, as in the case of the Windrush generation, the government might deliberately destroy your records.
The effects of the hostile environment are felt well beyond its stated targets. It creates a charter for racial discrimination against anyone who seems to be visibly foreign, as immigration checks are essentially outsourced to frontline workers who are ill-equipped to make sense of the myriad documents that prove someone’s status in the UK.
It embeds the principle that our public services are not universal, and that the state can decide who deserves to access them and who doesn’t. And crucially, it conditions all of us to accept that being policed and biometrically identified at every turn in the name of immigration control is the price we have to pay for getting on with our lives.
Many have cited the "immense contribution" to post-war Britain and institutions like the NHS as the reason that Commonwealth citizens' treatment is so unforgivable. We have reached a rare moment of consensus on immigration policy: MPs from every major party agree that this should never have happened. The government has set up a specialist task-force to deal with the issue, and the Prime Minister has issued a public apology.
But it is no cause for celebration that politicians and the public have for once united – in support of the principle that people who have been living here lawfully for decades, and who first came here as citizens, should not be deported. It is a damning indictment of this country that the bar is so low.
There is a risk that the immense suffering the Windrush generation has experienced will be spun as the overzealous misapplication of a perfectly sound policy. The reality is that if the fundamental logic of the hostile environment is not challenged and undone, it will continue to cause untold damage to the lives of those perceived to be its legitimate targets.
Of course we should demand that the cases of the Windrush generation are resolved by the Home Office without delay, free of charge, and without them having to provide onerous amounts of documentary evidence that they likely do not have. Of course we should demand a public inquiry into the hostile environment, and campaign for it to end. But crucially we should interrogate how narratives and policies pitting "good" migrants against "bad", "natives" against newcomers, brought us so far down this dark and dangerous road.
It is possible to run a country in which every child receives an education; in which every person who is sick is cared for, whatever their income; in which every worker has a remedy when their labour rights are abused, and in which everyone has access to safe and adequate housing.
It is also possible to run a country that prioritises state-sanctioned racism and xenophobia over respect for fundamental human rights.
It is not possible to do both at the same time. That is the trade-off that public and government must reckon with. It’s a reckoning that has come not a moment too soon.
Gracie Bradley is an Advocacy Officer for Liberty.