Last year, reacting to the Trump administration’s practice of putting kids in cages on the US – Mexico border, advocates of immigration reform in America adopted a new slogan: “The cruelty is the point.” Those words kept coming back to me as I was reading The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing The Hostile Environment, Amelia Gentleman’s bracing new account of the immigration scandal that rocked Britain and shamed Theresa May’s government.
According to Gentleman — a Guardian journalist whose dogged investigative work broke the story in 2017 and 2018 — Windrush “wasn’t a mistake.” “It was the direct consequence of a harsh set of policies designed to bring down immigration numbers by ejecting people from Britain, and by making life intolerable for anyone without documents,” she writes.
A group of Guatemalan women have come forward alleging they were sexually harassed and threatened with deportation at a company owned by the Aquilini family, who also own the Vancouver Canucks.
One recent Friday evening I drove with a man called El Tigre to a vegetable farm on the outskirts of Vancouver. El Tigre—whose real name is Raul Gatica—is a political refugee from Mexico who now runs the Migrant Workers’ Dignity Association (MWDA), a not-for-profit body set-up to represent the interests of foreign labourers in BC. He was given the nickname by the workers at some point, but he can’t remember when or why. “Maybe it’s because I’m small but brave and formidable,” he told me. “I don’t know. Something like that.”
At the farm, Raul introduced me to a dozen or so labourers, most of whom were also Mexican. Their stories were all the same. The work is backbreaking and a single shift can last for up to 12 hours. They live on-site in cheaply constructed housing units. The pay is abysmal. The employers are bullying and punitive. They felt isolated, invisible, and abused. “We want the same rights as Canadians,” one guy said, as he lifted bundles of lettuce and pak choi from the earth. “It’s a simple thing to ask.”
This is what it took for me to secure temporary residence and the right to work in Canada: I applied for a visa; a few weeks later my visa was approved; a few months after that, I arrived in Vancouver, the city I am now, tentatively, beginning to call home.
And that’s about it – the sum total of a process otherwise known for its impersonal bureaucratic drudgery. There was no intrusive background check, no last minute border interrogation, no attempt, at any stage, by the Canadian authorities to discourage me from moving to a country that I had never previously set foot in.
Gregor Klaus moved to Belfast in 2008 as a student, from a mid-sized town – Halle – in eastern Germany.
After nearly a decade in the city, he speaks fluent English, but with a German accent that carries the distinctive twang of his adopted Northern Irish homeland.
Ben Judah’s new book This Is London is an exhilarating account of the British capital as a nerve centre of global culture and of a metropolis transformed by the effects of mass immigration.
Judah embeds himself with Roma beggars in Hyde Park, Romanians labourers in a North Circular doss house, and African ‘pickers’ (cleaners) slogging through the late shift on the Tube. He “doesn’t trust statistics” and so insists on soaking these experiences in at first hand. His writing is visceral, and at its best echoes the immersive style of the great Polish reporter and author Ryszard Kapuściński.