English local elections on 3 May take place as migrants might be finding a less divided political voice than at any time since the vote in favour of leaving the European Union (EU). The 2016 Referendum created deep uncertainty about the rights and prospects of more than three million EU citizens living in the country. Yet others were attracted by arguments that leaving the EU might bring opportunities to strengthen Britain’s ties with Commonwealth countries. The Leave campaign actively fostered this impression in the battle for votes. Priti Patel famously announced a “Save the British Curry Day” and argued that “[by] voting to leave the EU we can take back control of our immigration policies [and] save our curry houses.” Keeping out the Europeans, it seemed, would create more space for migrants from former colonies.
This was always unlikely. As Simon Hix, Eric Kaufmann and Thomas Leeper show, UK voters, including Leavers, care more about reducing non-EU than EU migration. Instead of a new openness towards Commonwealth countries, the Windrush scandal highlights their role at the very centre of the government’s efforts to reduce the number of migrants in Britain. Over the past months, the Guardian has published a string of harrowing stories of deportation, destitution and denial of critical medical treatment resulting from Theresa May’s infamous (and now rebranded) “hostile environment” policy for illegal immigrants. The policy initially appeared to claim predominantly black victims among long-term residents with migration backgrounds who Amber Rudd’s Home Office, in pursuit of ambitious removal targets, deemed unable to document their status. Now the scandal is spreading to non-Caribbean Commonwealth-born citizens. This shameful treatment heightens anxiety about their prospects for migrants in general.