LONDON – These immigrants have lived and worked in Britain for decades. Now, some face deportation because they lack the official paperwork needed to stay.
Much like the "DREAMers" brought to the United States as children, many immigrant kids who arrived in the United Kingdom from the Caribbean and other former British colonies a half-century ago face an uncertain future.
They are the descendants of the "Windrush generation," named after a ship — the MV Empire Windrush — that docked in the U.K. in June 1948 with cleaners, bus drivers, bricklayers and nurses from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and other British territories. The immigrants rebuilt the U.K. after the destruction endured during World War II.
British Prime Minister Theresa May apologized Tuesday for her government's treatment of the approximately 500,000 people of the "Windrush generation" who came to the U.K. between 1948 and 1971.
"We welcome them and the enormous contribution they have made to this country," May said during a meeting with Caribbean Leaders in London. She said she was "genuinely sorry for any anxiety that has been caused."
Unlike DREAMers, those in the Windrush generation were never considered illegal immigrants. They arrived in the U.K. legally under then freedom of movement laws for nationals of the Commonwealth, an intergovernmental organization of 53 member states that are mostly former territories of the British Empire. The immigrants did not need elaborate documentation or proof of British citizenship. Many never registered.
But a series of tough new rules on immigration means some of these immigrants are now being classified as illegal. They have faced deportation threats and in some cases stripped of their rights to access health care, employment and pensions.
"The Britain we know today, in some cases the gentrified beautiful Britain with wonderful bridges and all sorts of stuff, has only been made possible by the contributions of these immigrants," said Paul Reid, a British national with Jamaican ancestry who directs the Black Cultural Archives.
The archives, which works to preserve the history of African and Caribbean people in Britain, is located in the heart of Britain's Caribbean community just off Windrush Square in London's Brixton neighborhood.
"The politics in this country has been shifting right for some time," Reid said, referring to the prominence of anti-immigration feelings in Britain's 2016 vote to leave the European Union, known as Brexit.
David Lammy, a British politician from the opposition Labour Party who has spearheaded efforts to recognize the rights of the Windrush generation, said Monday in Parliament that the issue represents a moment of "national shame."
Lammy, whose parents are immigrants from Guyana, said Tuesday in a tweet that Britain's immigration system is "not a system that is working. It is pernicious cruelty."
British actor David Harewood, who appears in the TV series Homeland, said, "All across the Caribbean, for many, England was the mother country. When she put out the call for nurses and teachers to come help rebuild after the war they came to assist and start new lives. That they should be turfed out after 50 odd years hard work and graft is a disgrace."
May's government said it does not think anyone from the Windrush generation has been deported. But in a meeting with Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness on Tuesday, May said she could not "definitively" rule it out.
Lammy's interventions have halted the planned Wednesday deportation of Mozi Haynes, 35, the son of a Windrush generation immigrant.
There have been other close calls.
Paulette Wilson, 61, moved to the U.K. from Jamaica when she was 10. For years she worked as a cook in Parliament, preparing lunch for British legislators. Since Wilson never applied for a British passport and had no other documentation to prove her residency rights, last year she was forcibly taken to Heathrow Airport to be deported back to Jamaica, according to Daniel Ashwell, Wilson's caseworker at the Refugee and Migrant Center, an organization that provides free legal advice and support. Wilson has not visited Jamaica for 50 years and has no surviving relatives there.
Only a last-minute intervention from Wilson's local parliamentarian saved her from being deported and separated from her daughter and granddaughter, Ashwell said.
"The whole thing just makes me angry," said Simeon Greene, 63, who came to Britain from Jamaica at age 5. Greene, who works with disadvantaged youth, has been battling British authorities for years over his immigration status.
"We were stolen from Africa in the first place, then dumped in the Caribbean," he said. "And now, after all these years to still have the ignominy and indignity of being treated like second-class citizens who don't belong — I'm just so angry."