With less than a year to go before Britain exits the European Union — a decision voters made in part to stem immigration — the government is confronting a scandal over its treatment of migrants, both legal and illegal.
Opposition lawmakers on Monday stepped up pressure on Prime Minister Theresa May to answer for her role in an official policy to create, in her words, a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants — that also ensnared a generation of legal arrivals from the Caribbean who were welcomed to Britain to help it rebuild after World War II.
Late Sunday, Amber Rudd resigned from her post as Britain’s Home Secretary following accusations that she lied to Parliament last week about deportation targets for illegal immigrants.
Rudd first told Parliament there were no national quotas, then amended her remarks and said maybe there were some. Finally, the Guardian produced a private letter Rudd sent to May outlining her commitment to increase deportations by 10 percent, which included numbers and targets.
On Monday, her replacement was named: Sajid Javid, a successful investor, experienced government minister and the first ethnic minority to hold the position of Home Secretary.
Javid is the son of a Pakistani immigrant bus driver and one of the most outspoken members of May’s cabinet to confront President Trump over his tweets about Muslims.
After Trump in November retweeted misleading anti-Muslim videos by an extremist fringe group called Britain First, Javid tweeted: “So POTUS has endorsed the views of a vile, hate-filled racist organisation that hates me and people like me. He is wrong and I refuse to let it go and say nothing.”
Rudd’s departure — the fourth member of May’s top leadership team to resign in the past six months — is a wicked blow for May. She once oversaw the Home Office, one of the four “great offices of state” that covers issues like counterterrorism and immigration. It’s also notoriously known as something of a political minefield — May’s six-year survival there being an exception.
The opposition Labour Party on Monday focused its fire on May, who as home secretary in 2012 began to use the phrase “hostile environment” in reference to British immigration enforcement. Some say she paved the way for the ongoing fiasco over the fate of the “Windrush” generation, named after the ship that brought the first wave of Caribbean immigrants to Britain after World War II.
May has repeatedly apologized in recent days over the treatment of the Windrush generation, some of whom have been threatened with deportation or denied health benefits or lost jobs because they haven’t been able to provide the paperwork to prove they were allowed to live here.
The prime minister’s critics note that it was May — not Rudd — who was responsible for the changes in immigration rules that led to doctors, landlords and employers checking people’s immigration status. Some of those in the Windrush generation, unable to produce the necessary paperwork, were caught in the net.
The stories, first reported in the Guardian, of Windrush pensioners being arrested and sent to deportation centers drew widespread condemnation. Even May’s own Tories said the shabby treatment of the Windrush community was an affront to a British sense of decency and fair play.
Britons, overall, would likely not be too upset with a government that pushed illegal immigrants out. But the Windrush pensioners struck a nerve.
Diane Abbott, the opposition Labour Party’s point person on home affairs, said: “The architect of this crisis, Theresa May, must now step forward to give a full and honest account of how this inexcusable situation happened on her watch.”
Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour Party, tweeted: “I see Amber Rudd is carrying the can for the person originally responsible for this scandal — Theresa May.”
The timing of the scandal is a huge headache for May, coming amid tricky Brexit negotiations and just days ahead of local elections on Thursday, with polls suggesting the Conservative Party could see big losses.
The scandal has also raised eyebrows across the English Channel, with European Union officials worried about the post-Brexit immigration status of the 3 million E.U. citizens who currently live in Britain.
In Rudd’s resignation letter, she acknowledged that she had “inadvertently misled” lawmakers and had “become aware of information provided to my office which makes mention of targets. I should have been aware of this, and I take full responsibility that I was not.”
It’s unclear if Rudd’s ouster will satisfy government critics.
“The basic problem remains with Windrush: These are logical consequences of policies that have Theresa May’s fingerprints all over them. She designed them, she implemented them when she was home secretary,” said Rob Ford, a professor of politics at the University of Manchester.
Windrush, Ford said, “highlights that even with all of the toxic politics we’ve had around immigration in the country for well over a decade that there is a basic kind of gut-level sense of fair treatment and fair play.”
“This is very much a government that built their approach to immigration on the idea that there is no such thing as a policy that is too anti-immigration. And actually, it turns out there is,” he added.
Brexiteers didn’t shed tears over Rudd’s departure. Rudd, once seen as a leading candidate for the Conservative Party leadership, was a prominent voice during the June 2016 referendum over Britain’s future in the European Union.
May has tried to keep a delicate balance of “remainers” and “leavers” in her cabinet. Javid was also a remainer, but a tepid one, at least publicly.
Javid on Monday said that his “most urgent” task was to help those unfairly caught up in the Windrush fiasco. His parents moved to Britain from Pakistan in the 1960s and he said the Windrush crisis hit home for him.
He told the Telegraph: “I thought that could be my mum … my dad … my uncle … it could be me.”