U.K. Officials Apologize After Lives Of Caribbean Immigrants Thrown Into Disarray
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
In the United Kingdom, government officials are issuing apologies after a months-long scandal threw the lives of many Caribbean immigrants into disarray. The Empire Windrush was a ship that carried hundreds of people from the Caribbean to the United Kingdom. They were invited by the government during a labor shortage shortly after World War II. Many others followed in a wave.
And one of them who arrived was Paulette Wilson. She's in a studio in Birmingham, England, right now with her daughter Natalie Barnes. It was their case that triggered the interest in Windrush. Welcome to both of you.
NATALIE BARNES: Good morning, Ailsa.
PAULETTE WILSON: Hi.
CHANG: So, Paulette, can you just first start out by telling me your story? When did you first arrive in the United Kingdom?
CHANG: How old were you?
WILSON: I was 10 years old.
CHANG: And you have lived in England uninterrupted ever since.
WILSON: Yes, I have.
CHANG: Growing up in the United Kingdom, had you always assumed that you were a British citizen?
CHANG: There was never any doubt in your mind.
CHANG: Now, I understand some problems started happening in 2015 when you received a letter from the Home Office. What did that letter say?
WILSON: The letter said that I was illegal immigrant and I had six months to get out the country.
CHANG: What went through your mind when you first read that letter?
WILSON: I didn't understand it at first. And I kept it away from my daughter for about a week.
CHANG: Natalie, how did you first learn about this letter?
BARNES: My mom told me a week after she received the letter. And what it was - I saw that she wasn't herself, so I basically said to her, you've got two days to tell me what's wrong with you 'cause I can see something's wrong with you which you don't want to tell me about. So the two days had passed, and she knocked on my door, and she handed me two letters.
CHANG: So the government told you, Paulette, that you had six months left to live in the country. Did they say in the meantime that any public benefits would be revoked?
WILSON: They stopped me from working.
BARNES: No public funding...
WILSON: No public funding at all, no jobs, nothing like that.
CHANG: So you started furiously gathering documents. What kind of documents?
BARNES: I tried my hardest. I ended up getting doctor's notes because obviously, being in care, they have their own system.
CHANG: Being in care. You mean your mother was in a foster home.
BARNES: Yes. And we couldn't find the information from when she was in there because the care home that she was in, they destroyed all the records. I was going from one part of England to the other part of England to ask if they had any records. They'd say, no, you have to go over there. I'd go over there, there was no records there. So I'm like, what do I do?
CHANG: OK, so long story short, you were able to get the help of a lawyer. You also were able to get the help of a nonprofit organization. You amassed a bunch of documentation, presented it to the government. And then what? Did they say, all right, you can stay and get public benefits?
BARNES: No. They said that it's not enough evidence. I've always thought my mum was a British citizen. And she's a British citizen because she was here before 1971. Margaret Thatcher made that law that the people that come from Jamaica could now get their citizenship if they were in the country before 1971.
CHANG: So you and your mother eventually got help because you took your case to the media.
BARNES: Yeah. I had to do it. Bringing my mom's case to the media actually got other people to come forward as well. So that's how that got so publicized. And, you know, it kind of, like, gave her hope a little bit to know that there's other people out there that are going through this. And then that's when my mom said to me, we need to fight this, and we need to do something more.
CHANG: Paulette, this whole ordeal - how did it feel to go through this?
WILSON: It traumatized me. My mind would be wandering somewhere else and thinking I don't exist. I felt like an alien.
CHANG: You felt like an alien.
WILSON: Yeah. The country's supposed to be my home. I felt like an alien.
CHANG: The British home secretary has just promised this week that the Windrush generation will be granted British citizenship. Paulette, is that enough?
WILSON: Well, it's a good thing that my story has helped other people 'cause it weren't just about me. It's about all the generation that's gone before me.
CHANG: Now that you know that you can stay in the country, do things feel rectified in your heart? Or do you still feel that some of the wounds haven't healed from the last three years?
WILSON: It hasn't healed at all. No, it hasn't. The wound hasn't healed. I still feel the same I did when they was putting me through all this in the first place. I've got to get myself back to the fun-loving person I used to be anyway. But nowadays I'm feeling sad and things like that. And that's not me. But I will get there.
CHANG: How about you, Natalie? Do you feel that you still have some wounds that haven't healed?
BARNES: Yeah. I mean, going through something like that, it does take a toll on you. But I'm just happy now that she can't be taken away from me. And my family won't be ripped apart. And we can just live good for the rest of the time that we've got together.
CHANG: Well, I wish both of you much luck.
BARNES: Thank you very much.
WILSON: Thank you very much.
CHANG: That's Natalie Barnes and her mother Paulette Wilson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.