The Windrush scandal in Britain is a story of how the members of a group of the population during the last few years found themselves demoted to a state in which they could not sleep at ease at night out of fear that someone would come and take them away. The Windrush generation are the migrants from the British West Indies who brought their labour force to Britain after the Second World War, on British encouragement, both adults and children with their parents. (The Empire Windrush was a transport ship that brought the first contingent of organised migrants from Jamaica and other Caribbean islands in 1948.) They settled here, made their lives here and became British.
Recently, members of this group came under intense scrutiny from immigration authorities and many found their right to live in Britain questioned. They were harassed for documentation to prove their right to reside. They found documentation such as employment and tax and social security records, even passports, disbelieved. They were forced into bureaucratic nightmares to procure additional documentation, often at substantial financial cost. They were denied standard services, such as health care, or were forced to pay for normally free services. Some were detained, some lost jobs, some were deported or threatened with deportation, some denied travel on the threat of not being readmitted, some refused re-entry from abroad.
The refugee children scandal in the United States is a story children of migrants on America’s borders, whose right of entry were in question, having been forcefully separated from their parents. They have sometimes been detained in concentration camp like facilities in border areas, sometimes sent away to other parts of the country.
In retrospect, authorities in both countries have acknowledged that what happened was wrong, but what should not have been done was still done. In both these civilised democratic countries practices came into operation which we otherwise associate with totalitarian dictatorships. How could that have happened?
It happened, of course, because officials on the ground obeyed orders from above. It has sometimes been seen as a mystery that totalitarian dictators have been able to get officials to implement brutish oppression, but there is no mystery. When officials are embedded in bureaucratic structures of command and obedience, those in command can get almost any order obeyed. Officials may not like what they have to do, but it gets done.
But in these two stories, there has been something more to it than obedience. Officials have executed perceived orders with extraordinary and brutal zeal, even in the face of horrendous and irrational consequences. Hardly anyone in position of authority in the respective services seems to have raised any question or objection, at least on principle.
That kind zeal comes from something else than just orders, it comes from the language in which the orders are couched. Language of caution can influence officials to implement orders with common sense and flexibility. Language of aggression can bend them to bureaucratic insensitivity.
In both these stories, public policy went seriously off the rails. The reason for that is ultimately that leaders were aggressive with the language they used to promote and justify their policies. In Britain, then Home Secretary Theresa May announced that immigration policy should be designed to create a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants, and made a great show of that hostility. Immigration officials took to looking for illegal immigrants behind every bush and turned on a minority of mostly poor and black citizens with rigid demands of proof of their legality. In America, President Trump has whipped up anti-immigration sentiments by speaking of immigrants as criminals, rapists, and as vermin infesting the country, and asked for zero tolerance in the implementation of policy. Immigration officials dispensed retribution against children, even down to taking infants and disabled children away from their mothers.
Public policy depends on leadership for good or bad direction. Language is powerful. It is a responsibility of leadership to use language with prudence. Aggressive language from up high is dangerous – not just careless but dangerous. We see that in these two stories. We have had leadership of terrible language. We have had administrative practices that belong in totalitarian dictatorships.