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Immigration is the key issue that decided Brexit, as Britons sought more control over flows of people from other European Union states. And well before the issue of EU membership was put to voters, Prime Minister Theresa May – then the Home secretary – shaped what she called a “hostile environment” for illegal immigration. But after political controversy over the government’s mishandling of the “Windrush generation,” the appointment of new Home Secretary Sajid Javid could signal a shift in thought in migration politics. Specifically, it is being viewed as a nod from the Conservatives that their restrictive policies may have gone too far. Mr. Javid, who was born the son of a Pakistani bus driver but became an elite banker, is a proponent of free-market arguments in favor of immigration. “Javid’s view would be that immigration is economically and culturally beneficial to Britain,” says Sunder Katwala, director of the immigration think tank British Future, “but as a politician he knows he’s got to bring the public with him, and he’s got to take seriously the way people feel about high immigration, so he has to strike those balances.”
It’s the kind of tale that turns even the most hardened nationalist soft.
His father arrived in Britain from Pakistan with nothing but a one-pound note in his pocket. But Sajid Javid became a prominent banker and politician, and now has risen to become Britain’s Home secretary, the first time a citizen with an ethnic minority background has assumed one of Britain’s four “great offices of state.”
Beyond an exemplar of the immigrant dream, Mr. Javid’s appointment to take charge of immigration and national security may also signal a shift in thought in migration politics overall.
Specifically, it is being viewed as a nod from the Conservatives that their restrictive policies may have gone too far, in some ways out of step with public attitudes – particularly in the wake of the Windrush controversy that has dominated British headlines for weeks. It shares some similarities with the political controversy surrounding the Dreamers, the estimated 1.8 million immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children.
Immigration has driven politics and divided publics for years, from Britain across Europe to the US. In the UK, it’s the issue that decided Brexit, as Britons sought more control over immigration flows from other European Union states. Well before the issue of EU membership was put to voters, Prime Minister Theresa May held Javid’s post and shaped what she called a “hostile environment” for illegal immigration.
For that reason, there is skepticism that the government line on immigration will radically change. And Javid himself advocates for a hard Brexit and border for Britain. But he has assumed office hinting that he will reshape the atmosphere on immigration into one that is more “compliant.” “I don’t like the phrase ‘hostile,’ ” Javid said Monday. “It doesn’t represent our values as a country to use that phrase. It is about a compliant environment, and it is right that we have a compliant environment.”
The word “hostile” is at the heart of the cabinet shakeup that led to Javid’s new post in the first place. Ms. May and former Home Secretary Amber Rudd found themselves in a row over the so-called “Windrush generation,” the Caribbean nationals who came to Britain after World War II to help rebuild the British economy. They were given leave to remain, but the government's documentation of their status was shoddy or went missing over time. As immigration policies hardened, particularly under May’s tenure as home secretary, some members of the Windrush generation and their descendants found themselves in legal limbo. [Editor's note: This paragraph was updated to further clarify the legal status of the Windrush generation.]
Ahead of the shakeup, Javid had criticized their plight in deeply personal terms in a Sunday Telegraph interview. His own father arrived in the '60s, finding work as a bus driver. His mother never studied, so he sometimes had to take off time from school to translate for her. He told the paper: “That could be my mum ... it could be my dad ... it could be my uncle ... it could be me.”
Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, an independent think tank that addresses integration and immigration, says Javid’s personal experience gives him legitimacy at the center of the debate. “He is definitely on the pro-immigration and pro-integration side of the debate, which is a center-ground position in what is quite a polarized view.”
He calls the appointment an opportunity to push the “reset” button on Britain’s immigration policies.
The second-generation immigrant, who became an MP after his banking career, has an inspiring backstory. But Matt Kilcoyne, head of communications at the Adam Smith Institute, a free-market think tank, says his story can also communicate a more positive message about immigration.
“I'd like to think that Sajid’s family background, and his own career across the globe, help him to ... make the free-market case for immigration to convince the right in this country to back a more open and global policy on the issue,” he says.
It’s unclear how much room he’ll have to maneuver. Ms. Rudd didn’t stray from May’s positions in the Home office. She was forced to resign over the weekend, for having misled Parliament about whether her office set a target for deportations each year, which it did starting with May’s administration. Rudd and May both apologized for the unintended consequences to the Windrush generation.
But Rob Ford, who studies the politics of immigration at the University of Manchester, says that beyond bureaucratic mistakes, May’s policies have failed to reflect the nuances of British attitudes about immigration.
A recent YouGov poll shows that 63 percent of respondents think immigration into Britain in the past decades has been too high. But when respondents are asked about different kinds of immigration, in terms of origin or skills, their answers change. Over 70 percent of respondents said they want the same or even higher levels of skilled immigration, for example. A Sky Data poll last week found that 54 percent believe the suffering of Windrush migrants is “not a price worth paying.”
“There is a basic sense of fair treatment that runs through what the public wants to see,” Professor Ford says. Illegal immigration may be rejected for exploiting rules, but so too is harsh treatment of pensioners because, he says, “it violates basic principles of justice.”
“The mistake Theresa May has repeatedly made on migration policy is this assumption that any migrant will do when it comes to control, or enforcement or reduction of the numbers,” Ford says. “That simply doesn’t hold up.”
He draws a parallel to the political stalemate around the Dreamers. Polls show a majority of Americans agreeing with their right to remain in the country. But politicians talk of immigrants as a monolithic group deserving of a single, partisan response.
That’s where Javid may have a chance to navigate the complexities of public opinion. “Javid’s view would be that immigration is economically and culturally beneficial to Britain,” says Mr. Katwala, “but as a politician he knows he’s got to bring the public with him, and he’s got to take seriously the way people feel about high immigration, so he has to strike those balances.”