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What Theresa May’s treatment of Generation Windrush means for other immigrants

“Trust us, we will treat EU citizens fairly” is likely to evoke some pretty bitter laughs around the negotiating table.

The stories have not lost their capacity to shock, even as their numbers have grown:

The man who came here as a child, yet was told to leave immediately, after sixty years in Britain.

The elderly woman, a former chef from the House of Commons restaurant, sent to a detention centre and threatened with deportation to Jamaica, a country she hasn’t seen since she was ten.

The elderly man thrown out of his council home, and refused cancer treatment.

This is the grim harvest of wrecked lives produced as the government’s “hostile environment” policies – which require doctors, employers, landlords and schools to check the immigration status of all who use their services – are applied to the “Windrush generation”: immigrants who came to Britain from the Commonwealth, often actively recruited by the government at a time when little or no paperwork was required to do so.

People who have been in Britain legally for decades – but have no formal papers confirming this – are being treated as potential criminals by the government, because its predecessors didn’t document their arrival or record their status.

The current Conservative government has made it an article of faith that the British public would back any policy designed to make life difficult for immigrants, however cruel, inept or inflexible.

The growing public backlash to the “Windrush crisis” – intense enough for the Daily Mail to join in with attacking the government – belies this assumption.

The reason is quite simple: the policy falls well foul of what British voters, even those with serious reservations about immigration, think is fair.

This is underlined by polling from the British Social Attitudes survey which, a few years ago, asked people how long immigrants who play by the rules and pay their taxes should have to wait before receiving full political and social rights. Eight out of ten said such people should have full rights after five years, and nine out of ten would grant them after ten years.

The “Windrush” immigrants caught up in the current crisis have typically been here 50 years – and arrived as citizens with full rights in the first place. There is simply no meaningful public support for the way they are being treated.

It gets worse for the Conservatives, for not only is this policy universally opposed, it also reinforces negative views of the party that have hurt their support with crucial sections of the electorate.

The Conservatives’ struggle with voters under 40 in the last general election have been widely debated – but while much of this discussion has focused on issues such as housing and student debt, researchers like John Curtice have found that the bigger dividing line is on values: the more socially liberal, younger generations reject a Conservative party they see as illiberal and intolerant.

Daily stories of law-abiding pensioners denied housing and healthcare, and ordered out of the country, can only cement this reputation, further alienating a critical and fast-growing section of the electorate.

Then there are Britain’s rapidly growing ethnic minority communities, who have rejected the Conservatives en masse. Researchers investigating this – including the Conservative strategist and donor Lord Ashcroft – have found the root cause is a deep-seated distrust of the Conservatives from ethnic minority voters, who feel the party does not understand the problems they face, and does not take the prejudice they face seriously enough as a political issue.

The widely-reported struggles of the predominantly black Caribbean “Windrush” immigrants, and the insensitive and inflexible way the government treated them, will be long remembered by communities already primed to distrust the Conservatives.

The next Conservative leader who sets out to build bridges with ethnic minority communities will face a very tough task indeed.

The heavy-handed, error-strewn treatment of immigrants here for decades will also be making EU migrants and their allies profoundly anxious. Many Europeans have also been here for decades and they also did not anticipate needing comprehensive records of their time in the country.

They, too, have faced a government whose reassuring words have not been met with clear or comprehensive action to define and secure their rights. These immigrants, and their families, friends and allies, could emerge as another group permanently alienated by Conservative incompetence and intransigence.

The crisis is also harming our national reputation abroad. Commonwealth governments have been appalled at the treatment of their citizens, some of whom have been detained and deported in the midst of the Commonwealth games.

These are the nations our post-Brexit government is supposed to be building new trade and political relationships with.

Meanwhile, the EU nations which have been repeatedly reassured by our government that their citizens will be treated fairly are getting a very clear idea what happens to immigrants when past guarantees of rights clash with current enforcement imperatives. “Trust us, we will treat EU citizens fairly” is likely to evoke some pretty bitter laughs around the negotiating table.

This attack on a group whose rights everyone, across the political spectrum, wants respected cannot last. It is a question of when, not if, the government backs down and changes course.

But by stubbornly pursuing the “hostile environment” policy that produced this crisis, despite repeated warnings about the problems it would create, Theresa May has done lasting damage to her party and to Britain’s reputation abroad.

An ambitious new Conservative chair once criticised colleagues for trying to “make political capital out of demonising minorities” and warned them about the risks of such a course: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies…You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

Fifteen years later, as Prime Minister, Theresa May has renewed the lease on that title, and all the problems it brings, for a generation to come.

Rob Ford is a professor of politics at the University of Manchester.