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The ‘Windrush generation’ and ‘illegal immigrants’ are both our kin

As well as newfound sympathy for the Windrush generation, we should remember that ‘illegal immigrants’ are our kin, especially if we are to challenge the racism of the ‘hostile environment’.

Image: Windrush solidarity event in Brixton, April 2018. Yui Mok/PA Images. All rights reserved.

On Sunday Home Secretary Amber Rudd resigned following the furore over the Windrush scandal: perhaps the first time a Home Secretary has faced sustained criticism for being too tough on the question of immigration. We should be cautious, however, in celebrating this apparent change in public mood. In fact, what we are witnessing is the re-drawing of the line separating those who belong from those who do not: ‘Windrush migrants’ are brought into the fold of the national ‘we’, while ‘illegal immigrants’ are constructed as manifest outsiders. 

In the last couple of weeks, we have been consistently reminded that the Windrush generation are not migrants, but arrived as citizens, as though this distinction must necessarily preface our compassion. We are then peddled the myth that Windrush migrants were invited to Britain, and welcomed with open arms, when in fact ‘coloured migration’ was always deemed undesirable, and racism has shaped immigration politics and nationality law since that historic docking at Tilbury.

The fact that the Windrush generation were turned into ‘illegal immigrants’ is precisely how immigration control works. There are no sharp divisions between ‘legal migrants’ and citizens over here, working hard, paying taxes and playing by the rules, and the ‘illegal immigrants’ over there, sneaking around, stealing jobs and deceiving ordinary Brits. In fact, the law changes around people; illegality is produced in ways which create divisions within our families, communities and classrooms. We can only develop a stronger critique of the UK’s cruel immigration system if we see Windrush migrants and ‘illegal immigrants’ as kin, rather than as good and bad migrants to be isolated from one another.

In response to this, last week on Question Time Diane Abbott stated that she would not support any amnesty for undocumented migrants who’ve been living in the UK for over ten years, and suggested that Labour would in fact ‘bear down on the numbers of illegal immigrants’,  apparently because they lead ‘tragic lives’. But this sharp distinction between ‘Windrush migrants’ and ‘illegal immigrants’ does not hold in practice. To see this, we need to question how migration works over time.

Between 1948 and 1962, around 10% of Jamaica’s population left the island for Great Britain (the percentage was higher in some of the smaller islands). This kind of mass migration cannot be turned off like a tap. People continue to live their lives across borders, transnationally, as family members make plans for their children, partners and cousins to join them. In short, the effects of migration are cumulative and networked, despite immigration restriction.

Since 1971, the numbers of migrants moving from the Caribbean to the UK has decreased – North America became the prime destination – but people continued to move. In the last thirty years, some of these migrants overstayed visas. Most were able to regularise and now they are ‘legal migrants’ and British citizens. Some could not. These are the ‘illegal immigrants’, and they are often remarkably familiar, speaking with British accents and identifying with the same neighbourhoods as their British friends. Their children, partners, and parents are often British. But for different reasons, they remain ‘illegal’. I am suggesting that ‘Windrush migrants’ and ‘illegal migrants’ are often kin literally, part of the same extended families, as well as figuratively, in terms of their shared vulnerability to state violence and racism.

The difference, however, is that ‘illegal immigrants’ end up on mass deportation charter flights.

This Thursday, up to 50 Jamaican nationals will be taken in the middle of the night from their detention cells, told to pack up what few possessions they have, and loaded onto coaches set for their plane ‘home’. Many will be shackled in body restraints, their pleas for mercy ignored, their legal appeals cut short, their family lives destroyed.

These are the ‘illegal immigrants’ who are unworthy of amnesty. These are the ‘bad migrants’, those who failed to play by the rules. They will be exiled home, banished to Jamaica, and this is routine, ordinary under UK immigration policy.

There is a cruel irony to the timing, but we would be wrong to identify a contradiction here. With immigration, there is nothing out of step about protecting some so that most can be excluded, detained and deported. This is immigration politics as usual.

What the Windrush scandal has provided is the rare opportunity to publically reflect on the violence of our immigration system (see David Lammy’s brilliant piece here). It should remind us of the human cost of the anti-immigrant politics we have cultivated, from the first restrictions on commonwealth subjects in 1962, through Enoch Powell, Thatcher, Blair and now Theresa May. Instead, we see the re-drawing of the line between us and them, good migrants and bad migrants, the Windrush generation and the ‘illegal immigrants’.

Of course, the treatment of Windrush migrants has been abhorrent, but those who have moved in more recent years also have compelling claims to move and to stay. Most migrants move to the UK because of deep historical and family connections, as they retrace, in reverse, the grooves of British imperialism. This is impossible to talk about when the consensus on ‘illegal immigration’ is so deafening.

As we reflect on the Windrush scandal, we might find that the charter flight to Jamaica on Thursday captures more about the UK’s approach to immigration than the newfound sympathy for the Windrush generation, and we should remember that ‘illegal immigrants’ are our kin, and necessarily so if we are to challenge the racism at the heart of the ‘hostile environment’.

This article is cross-posted with kind permission from Verso Books.

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