The current “Windrush” scandal — where the Home Office has accused a number of long-settled individuals of being “illegal immigrants” — has thrown into relief the many consequences of the government’s “hostile environment” (pdf) policies. Taking a longer historical view, however, illuminates another stark warning: the possible repercussions when governments undertake major shifts in immigration enforcement without sufficiently considering expectations that were in place when previous immigrant groups arrived. This is an essential warning to heed as the government attempts to deal with the post-Brexit status of millions of EU immigrants.

To see just how profoundly expectations about internal control have changed in the UK, it is worth looking further back than the beginnings of today’s “hostile environment.” Our recent article in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies uses archival evidence to examine how the Home Office approached immigrant documentation in the late 1960s — when many of the immigrants decades later suspected as “illegal” first arrived.

As we chart in our article, the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 had attempted to govern aggregate flows of immigration. It provided very few tools to punish individual transgressions of the rules. However, the Home Office soon began to move in that direction, mostly for symbolic reasons — aligning policy to fit popular perceptions of effective immigration control. Few in the Home Office thought a more punitive and individualised approach would aid their goal of reducing immigration.

Accordingly, expectations about individual documentation were completely different, on the part of both immigrants and immigration officials. This had major implications when the Home Office demanded proof that immigrants from this era had settled in Britain before 1973.

For instance, in our article we examine the 1969 requirement that Commonwealth dependants arriving for settlement acquire “entry certificates” before embarking. Today it may be difficult to believe, but before 1969, almost no documentation was strictly required for these children to enter and settle in the UK. A passport would be produced, but many children were on their parents’, so any stamp confirming settlement rights in the UK might have been included in a passport that belonged to someone else, likely now to be long discarded.

The Home Office’s goal in the late 1960s was to reduce immigration numbers, but they did not believe that simply requiring more paperwork would do this. In fact, this change was delayed for years in part because officials believed that it would be untenable to exclude people who appeared at the ports with obviously legitimate claims, but who did not have the right paperwork. Nevertheless, the Home Office came under political pressure to enact the change. But the Home Office issued no further paperwork to these immigrants systematically upon arrival, either before or after 1969. Demanding such paperwork a half-century later was bound to produce Kafkaesque situations.

One reason it was possible for immigrants to have such little paperwork is that the UK did not operate any system of internal checks at this time. In the 1960s, the UK’s system for Commonwealth immigration was conceptualised as based entirely at the port. While Commonwealth children were often subjected to invasive scrutiny at the ports of entry, Commonwealth citizens (unlike aliens) were not required to register with the police, and they were rarely admitted with conditions.

Policymakers believed internal monitoring would be difficult to set up, resource-intensive, and unlikely to produce results. Of course, today’s “hostile environment” includes a wide variety of checks, based on the apparent presumption that all legal immigrants are well documented. But we must remember that this is a recent development. In the 1960s, Home Office policymakers questioned the value of internal checks that would need to be premised on expectations of individual documentation which they knew not all individuals legally settled in the UK would meet.

In subsequent years, many of the individuals recently challenged to prove their status failed to obtain paperwork to confirm a status to which they had been considered entitled under law. The difficulties they have faced under shifting policies highlight possible issues for other groups.

While the current scandal has focused on “Windrush” immigrants from the Caribbean, the same issues seem primed to ensnare other Commonwealth immigrants who arrived under the same system and with the same documentary expectations. In contrast to Caribbean immigrants who arrived in the UK from islands that were not yet independent, immigrants from the Subcontinent are likely to have been more aware of their status as immigrants. But child immigrants from the Subcontinent often arrived with even less documentation than those from the Caribbean, as prior to 1969 the issuance of entry certificates there was much less common. It is likely that recent enforcement efforts are affecting long-settled Commonwealth immigrants from well beyond the Caribbean.

Looking forward, the current controversy also raises significant concerns about the status of EU immigrants in the UK. Their situation is broadly analogous: like pre-1962 Commonwealth immigrants, they arrived under a free movement regime, and with relatively light expectations around individual documentation and registration.

Despite repeated promises that current EU immigrants’ status will be sorted out sympathetically, the aggressive demands the Home Office has recently made of long-settled people raise major concerns about whether it has the institutional culture to follow through on such promises in the long term. Sadly, therefore, the current scandal is also a warning. It highlights what happens when the Home Office enacts new policies with no apparent regard to its own institutional history.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author. The original article was published in History and Policy here.

Mike Slaven is Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Lincoln.

Mike Slave

Lecturer, University of Lincoln

Christina Boswell is Professor of Politics at the University of Edinburgh. Her most recent book is Manufacturing Political Trust: Targets and Performance Measurement in Public Policy.

Christina Boswell

Professor of Politics, University of Edinburgh

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