A still from the BBC drama about the Windrush scandal, ‘Sitting in Limbo’

This essay, on the fundamental problem with the way British officials view immigration, was my Observer column this week.  It was published on 28 June 2020, under the headline ‘That Clayton Barnes is still not a citizen shows the ongoing cruelty of ‘hostile environment’.

Clayton Barnes came to Britain from Jamaica in 1959. He spent a lifetime in this country, working, paying taxes, raising a family. He was in his mind British, as he was in the eyes of his family, his friends, his colleagues, of anyone who took a rational view of his case.

But not in the eyes of the Home Office.

In 2010, Barnes went to Jamaica to help a friend fix his house and possibly to retire there. Three years later, when he tried to return to see his family in Britain, he was refused entry. Someone who by any reckoning was British was refused entry to his own country on the grounds that he might not ‘leave the UK’.

Eventually, as the facts of the Windrush scandal became exposed, Barnes was allowed to return home in 2018. He would, you might think, be officially embraced as a British citizen. But no.

In a moving interview last week, his daughter Samantha Barnes-Garner talked about the Home Office’s insistence that her father live here for another five years and then apply for citizenship. And then it might deign to agree. More than half a century of living and working in this country apparently counts for nothing. ‘Is my father even going to be alive to see he’s going to be a British citizen, which is what he always believed?’ she asked.

Last week, the home secretary, Priti Patel, promised to act on all the recommendations of Wendy Williams’s Windrush Lessons Learned report, including a review of the ‘hostile environment’ policy that gave rise to the scandal. The reality, though, suggests that little is changing.

It’s not just the continued abysmal treatment of people such as Clayton Barnes. It’s also the refusal to rethink the ‘no recourse to public funds’ rule. This rule, which was brought to the attention of an apparently surprised Boris Johnson during an appearance at a parliamentary liaison committee earlier this month, bans all immigrants from outside the European Economic Area, however long they have lived and worked here, from claiming most benefits unless they also have indefinite leave to remain in this country, a rule that has caused great hardship in the lockdown. The Home Office has promised a review, but so far nothing appears likely to change.

It’s also in the government’s refusal to offer free visa extensions to lower-paid migrant hospital staff or care workers. These are the people who can least afford the exorbitant costs of renewing a visa. But no, cleaners and porters and nursing assistants will have to pay several thousand pounds for the privilege of putting themselves on the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic.

Why is the government being so pigheadedly stubborn, so reluctant to take a rational view of people’s immigration and citizenship status? Because, suggests the barrister Colin Yeo in his new book Welcome to Britain, it is a view stitched into Britain’s immigration laws. These laws are such a ‘cobbled-together conglomeration of [the] incomprehensible and outdated’ that the only people for whom they bring any benefit ‘are immigration lawyers like me’.

But within Britain’s clutch of byzantine regulations is one basic principle – that immigrants are a threat. Over the past century, immigrants have variously been regarded as ‘a danger to racial purity, to culture, to religion, to values, to traditions, to solidarity, to security, to public funds, to jobs, to women and more’.

And nowhere has this been more visible than in the ‘hostile environment‘ policies, formalised in the 2014 Immigration Act. The aim was to make life in the UK intolerable for those deemed unlawfully resident by cutting them off from basic necessities, whether bank accounts, health provision or the ability to rent a flat. The trouble was, Yeo notes, ‘the government wrongly equated absence of papers with absence of permission’. The result was ‘an all-out assault on immigration in which not just migrants but lawfully resident and even British citizen ethnic minorities became collateral damage’.

The testimonies of people such as Clayton Barnes, of those left destitute by the ‘no recourse to public funds’ rule, by low-paid migrant workers who do essential work but also have to pay the NHS surcharge and the exorbitant cost of a visa extension, all speak to the human costs of immigration policy. The human pain was not, however, an unforeseen outcome but ‘the whole purpose of the hostile environment’. Government ministers, Yeo notes, ‘claim that they are sorry that some of the ‘wrong’ people were affected in this way, but the fact remains that these effects were supposed to be felt by the ‘right’ people’.

Earlier this month, the National Audit Office published a report to evaluate the success or otherwise, in its own terms, of the hostile environment policy. It concluded that evaluation is impossible because there is no data. The government does not know how many ‘illegal’ immigrants there are (independent guesstimates range from about 600,000 to 1.2 million), who they are, or even whether its policy has the ostensibly desired effects of driving down the numbers.

In other words, the government doesn’t care about its policies or their impact. It wants to promote the idea that Britain is facing a ‘swarm’, to use David Cameron’s word, of unauthorised migrants and to be seen to be acting in response.

Whether or not Patel’s review is of any consequence remains to be seen. The government is fond of launching reviews and ignoring recommendations. In any case, the problem is not simply the specific hostile environment policy. It is officialdom’s whole attitude to immigration.

A good starting point from which to rethink Britain’s immigration strategy would be Yeo’s suggestion that we should stop viewing migrants as potential threats and see them rather as ‘citizens in waiting’. That requires not a review but a transformation of mindset. And a good first step would be with Clayton Barnes, not a citizen in waiting but a citizen waiting for his citizenship to be recognised by the boneheads in the Home Office.

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