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9 March 2023

Don’t assume that migrant-born politicians should be pro-immigration

There is little progressive about assuming that Suella Braverman and Priti Patel should take a more liberal stance than other politicians.

By Anoosh Chakelian

As a journalist covering British society whose dad was a refugee, people often make the same argument to me. Those who generally pride themselves on their progressive credentials are baffled by certain politicians’ hard-line stances on immigration, given their own migration story.

When I interviewed Alf Dubs, a Labour peer who came to the UK as a Jewish child refugee in 1939, he made this point about Priti Patel, the home secretary at the time. Her parents were Ugandan Asian refugees facing persecution, who settled in the UK in the Sixties.

“It’s an irony,” Dubs told me, in a conversation about Ukrainian refugees struggling to come to Britain. “I was a local councillor in Paddington, on the Tory-controlled Westminster city council. And when the Ugandan Asians came, we put a number of Uganda Asian families at the top of our housing list, which caused a lot of argument as to we were undermining people who had been waiting.

“However, we did it… and to think we stuck our necks out like that so that Priti Patel’s forefathers, parents or grandparents, [could] get here. I mean, talk about pulling up the drawbridge when you’re here.”

This perspective has resurfaced amid plans to deport asylum seekers, unveiled by Suella Braverman, the current Home Secretary, who was born in Britain to parents who migrated from Mauritius and India. “Suella Braverman says, ‘my own parents, decades ago, found security and opportunity in this country, something for which my family is eternally grateful’,” tweeted the Green MP Caroline Lucas. “Interesting she can recognise her parents needed a chance. Sad she doesn’t recognise that today’s refugees just want the same.”

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The Green Party is in favour of looser visa rules and a more welcoming and generous asylum system. Dubs is a zealous advocate for refugee rights, and has steadfastly used his position in the Lords to uphold them.

[See also: This immigration bill isn’t just illegal – it’s dangerous]

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Yet their assumption that Braverman and Patel would be the same strikes me as dehumanising. However unpalatable we find their position, it’s not particularly tolerant to use migrants’ and their descendants’ backgrounds as a way to judge their outlook. It flattens them, seeing them first as foreigner-born rather than three-dimensional Brits. And I can’t help hearing an unconscious hint of “they should be grateful” – that people of a certain heritage should be willing to be used to propagate the Correct Opinion.

Of course, this happens on the migration-sceptic right, too. I’ve been told by a source present in cabinet meetings when Patel was home secretary that she was treated as a “useful battering ram”. “It’s useful,” they said, “to get her to stand up in parliament and say, ‘Here is this borderline racist policy’.” Other ministers would be too squeamish to voice it.

A similar thing is happening with Braverman’s use of the word “invasion”, for example: there is an undertone of glee among colleagues who themselves “wouldn’t have chosen that word”. She’s “crazy” and “awful”, gasps one Tory source who has worked closely with her, and who otherwise quietly supports the Rwanda scheme.

Making it in British politics as a first- or second-generation immigrant demands a narrative of hard work, grit and gratitude – particularly so when rising up the Conservative Party, which in the past decade has had a target to reduce net migration and implemented the hostile environment policy.

Patel and Braverman have risen to prominence in that party, at a time of toxic attitudes towards migrants, and been rewarded for their tough stances with the keys to the Home Office. But their views on asylum seekers and refugees are also sincere. In fact, if anything they are even more radical in private, I’m told. This is because of the kind of politicians they are, not despite their parents’ journeys. The left reveals its prejudices if it expects otherwise.

Read more:

PMQs today: Keir Starmer talks tough on migrants

Leader: Why we need honesty on migration

What does a good, 21st-century immigration policy look like?