British Citizen One Day, Illegal Immigrant the Next

Beyond pledging to grant citizenship to all those caught up in the migration crackdown and to waive the fees and tests usually involved in that process, the Home Office has established a special team to expedite applications.

But the scandal has had a particularly distasteful resonance for black Britons, who say it is a symptom of lingering racism within government institutions.

Under the rules imposed when Mrs. May was home secretary, people were required to prove their identity and legal status in the country in order to get a job, rent an apartment, receive free medical care, open a bank account or enroll in school, among other things.

That created an immediate problem for Windrush-era migrants like Mr. McIntyre, who struggled to prove their status. They had been unaware that they had to apply for the necessary documentation; theoretically, they have indefinite permission to remain under a 1971 law.

Their plight surfaced now and then in the news, but came to prominence after a series of reports in The Guardian. The Home Office, the newspaper reported, had not kept a record of those granted permission to remain or issued any paperwork confirming it. Then, in 2010, it even destroyed the landing cards recording migrants’ arrivals from the Caribbean.

Mr. McIntyre questioned the motive behind the destruction of landing cards. “Why did they do that?” he asked. “To me, it seems like they want to get rid of us.”

It has seemed that way to many in a generation of workers who accepted an invitation to come to Britain. They pitched in as construction and railway workers, nurses, bus and truck drivers, among other, mostly blue-collar pursuits, never suspecting that their status as British citizens or legal residents would be challenged.

Many black Britons say institutionalized racism of the kind endured by the Windrush migrants remains deeply ingrained and rarely publicized.


Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Danesha Forte, 37, whose parents were Windrush migrants from Barbados, could not hide her exasperation.

“It’s atrocious,” Ms. Forte said, as she stood in Windrush Square in Brixton, the heart of London’s West Indian community. “Why are they targeting us? Are they trying to create a riot?” The neighborhood was the scene of major riots in 1981 and again in 1985, as young black men clashed with a police force they believed was persecuting their community.

“Black people are always targeted for something,” Ms. Forte said, adding that the police still disproportionately stopped and searched black people, particularly the young. “It’s one thing after the other. We just can’t catch a break.”

Britain, Ms. Baptiste said, remains enamored with romantic visions of its imperial past, a sentiment that in part drove its decision to leave the European Union. “We are an empire,” she said, “but for some people here, there are still too many dark faces.”

Most Britons are not taught about the prominent roles blacks played at royal courts in 15th-century Tudor Britain. Nor is it widely known that millions of ordinary Britons, even humble shopkeepers, owned shares in the slave trade. And across Britain, heritage plaques on Georgian townhouses euphemistically describe former slave traders and slave owners as West Indies merchants or planters.

A rose-tinted narrative of the British Empire was also peddled to its colonial subjects. Barbadians, for example, had been taught to revere the “mother country,” a mythical land populated by gentlemen, said Peter Fryer, author of “Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain.”

Before moving to Britain for work, “They took their British citizenship seriously, and many regarded themselves not as strangers but as kinds of gentlemen,” he wrote. “Everything taught in school encouraged this belief. What they found here dismayed and shocked them.”

Mr. Lammy, the Labour lawmaker, who last year forced Oxford University to reveal data showing that in 2015 a third of its colleges had failed to admit a single black British high school graduate, expressed outrage at the way the government had treated a generation of workers who contributed a great deal to the country.

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Britain Apologizes to Caribbeans Who’ve Lived in Britain for Decades

As recently as last week, Mrs. May’s office said she had no plan to meet separately with them to address the issue.

But she reversed course and on Tuesday, she met with 12 Caribbean Commonwealth leaders, and apologized. “We are genuinely sorry for any anxiety that has been caused,” she said.

Until last week, the Home Office, the agency that administers immigration policy, had advised Caribbean-born residents to hire lawyers, which many of them cannot afford. This week, the Home Office dropped that stance, announcing a dedicated team to help people sort out their immigration status free of charge, and promising resolutions in two weeks, rather than the months it has taken in the past.

The prime minister’s office even suggested that the government might reimburse people for expenses incurred during their struggles to secure legal status. But no one knows the scope of the problem.

Neither the government nor its critics know how many people belong to the “Windrush generation,” those who migrated legally from British colonies or former colonies between 1948 and 1973. They do not know how many are unable to prove that they are in the country legally, how many have faced dire consequences as a result or whether any have been wrongly deported.

The stories of mistreatment began with left-leaning publications, but spread to right-leaning news media outlets. The Times of London, usually friendly to the Conservative Party, editorialized on Tuesday that the prime minister’s policies suffered from “the corrosive assumption that immigrants are a problem rather than a benefit.”

On Monday, Amber Rudd, the home secretary, endured a torrent of abuse in the House of Commons. “Some of the way they have been treated has been wrong, has been appalling, and I am sorry,” Ms. Rudd said.

The most emotional statement came from David Lammy, a Labour member of Parliament whose parents immigrated to Britain from Guyana.

“It is inhumane and cruel for so many of that Windrush generation to have suffered so long in this condition,” Mr. Lammy said. “This is a day of national shame.”

He and other opposition lawmakers demanded that Ms. Rudd say how many people had been wrongly deported to Caribbean countries they barely remembered from childhood. She insisted that as far as she knew, none had been.


Prime Minister Andrew Holness of Jamaica, center, talked with reporters in London about the plight of Caribbeans who have lived in Britain legally for decades but have trouble documenting their status.

Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Unlike most European countries, Britain does not have a national identity card, and many people do not have passports, which require proving one’s identity and residence. Until recent years, routine aspects of British life required little documentation.

That changed in 2012, when the government sharply tightened immigration controls, requiring people to prove their identity and legal status in the country in order to get a job, rent an apartment, receive free medical care, open a bank account or enroll in school, among other things. Enforcement of those rules increased in the ensuing years.

The politician most closely associated with those policies is Mrs. May, who instituted them when she was home secretary.

“The aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants,” she said in 2012.

Her opponents frequently throw that line back at her, charging that she has applied a “hostile environment” policy to all immigration, legal or illegal.

More than two million citizens of other European Union countries are believed to live in Britain, thanks to European Union rules that ease movement across borders. That fact spurred many people to vote for Britain’s exit from the European Union in a 2016 referendum, and Conservative lawmakers have promised new migration controls once Britain leaves the bloc.

Mrs. May has said that European Union citizens already in Britain will not be deported, but many of them, mistrustful of the government and wary of the anti-immigrant mood, have already left or are contemplating leaving.

The Windrush generation dates to 1948, when British law granted a form of citizenship to people from the colonies. They were encouraged to move to Britain to fill a labor shortage and could migrate without any immigration controls.

The first large group from the West Indies, almost 500 people, arrived that year on the Empire Windrush, a passenger liner, and the name stuck to an entire generation.

In 1962, British law changed to end the automatic right of entry. During the 1960s and 1970s, as the Caribbean colonies gained independence — giving their people different citizenship — a series of British laws further tightened immigration controls.

One of those laws provided that anyone from a former colony who resided legally in Britain before Jan. 1, 1973, could remain indefinitely. More than half a million people, primarily from the Caribbean, fall into that category, and most eventually acquired British citizenship, according to the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford.

According to a government survey, more than 50,000 of those people say they are not British citizens, “but it’s hard to know what that means, really,” said Madeleine Sumption, director of the observatory. “You have people who believe that they are U.K. nationals and don’t realize that they are not. But there are also people who may in fact be U.K. citizens but don’t know.”

People who moved to Britain from 1948 to 1962, when migration was unrestricted, might not have any documentation of their arrival or their residence before 1973. Many believe they are full-fledged British citizens; experts say their status is not completely clear, though their legal right to live in Britain is undisputed.

Adults who migrated from 1962 to 1972 received documentation when they arrived, but still might not have anything proving residence before 1973. And if they brought children with them, those children — now in middle age or older — might not have ever had any immigration or other paperwork in their own names.

Ms. Rudd vowed in Parliament that the government would help people find documentary evidence of their legal status.

But Chuka Umunna, a Labour lawmaker, asked a question for which no one had a ready answer: “What if the evidence doesn’t exist?”

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Matter: All by Itself, the Humble Sweet Potato Colonized the World

Some agricultural experts are skeptical. “This paper does not settle the matter,” said Logan J. Kistler, the curator of archaeogenomics and archaeobotany at the Smithsonian Institution.

Alternative explanations remain on the table, because the new study didn’t provide enough evidence for exactly where sweet potatoes were first domesticated and when they arrived in the Pacific. “We still don’t have a smoking gun,” Dr. Kistler said.

The sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas, is one of the most valuable crops in the world, providing more nutrients per farmed acre than any other staple. It has sustained human communities for centuries. (In North America, it often is referred to as a yam; in fact, yams are a different species originating in Africa and Asia.)


A chromolithograph of Christopher Columbus arriving at the Caribbean.

Louis Prang and Company/Getty Images

Scientists have offered a number of theories to explain the wide distribution of I. batatas. Some scholars proposed that all sweet potatoes originated in the Americas, and that after Columbus’s voyage, they were spread by Europeans to colonies such as the Philippines. Pacific Islanders acquired the crops from there.

As it turned out, though, Pacific Islanders had been growing the crop for generations by the time Europeans showed up. On one Polynesian island, archaeologists have found sweet potato remains dating back over 700 years.

A radically different hypothesis emerged: Pacific Islanders, masters of open-ocean navigation, picked up sweet potatoes by voyaging to the Americas, long before Columbus’s arrival there. The evidence included a suggestive coincidence: In Peru, some indigenous people call the sweet potato cumara. In New Zealand, it’s kumara.

A potential link between South America and the Pacific was the inspiration for Thor Heyerdahl’s famous 1947 voyage aboard the Kon-Tiki. He built a raft, which he then successfully sailed from Peru to the Easter Islands.

Genetic evidence only complicated the picture. Examining the plant’s DNA, some researchers concluded that sweet potatoes arose only once from a wild ancestor, while other studies indicated that it happened at two different points in history.

According to the latter studies, South Americans domesticated sweet potatoes, which were then acquired by Polynesians. Central Americans domesticated a second variety that later was picked up by Europeans.

Hoping to shed light on the mystery, a team of researchers recently undertook a new study — the biggest survey of sweet potato DNA yet. And they came to a very different conclusion.

“We find very clear evidence that sweet potatoes could arrive in the Pacific by natural means,” said Pablo Muñoz-Rodríguez, a botanist at the University of Oxford. He believes the wild plants traveled thousands of miles across the Pacific without any help from humans.

Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez and his colleagues visited museums and herbariums around the world to take samples of sweet potato varieties and wild relatives. The researchers used powerful DNA-sequencing technology to gather more genetic material from the plants than possible in earlier studies.


A sweet potato farmer in in Papua New Guinea. The plant arrived there long before humans, scientists reported.


Their research pointed to only one wild plant as the ancestor of all sweet potatoes. The closest wild relative is a weedy flower called Ipomoea trifida that grows around the Caribbean. Its pale purple flowers look a lot like those of the sweet potato.

Instead of a massive, tasty tuber, I. trifida grows only a pencil-thick root. “It’s nothing we could eat,” Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez said.

The ancestors of sweet potatoes split from I. trifida at least 800,000 years ago, the scientists calculated. To investigate how they arrived in the Pacific, the team headed to the Natural History Museum in London.

The leaves of sweet potatoes that Captain Cook’s crew collected in Polynesia are stored in the museum’s cabinets. The researchers cut bits of the leaves and extracted DNA from them.

The Polynesian sweet potatoes turned out to be genetically unusual — “very different from anything else,” Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez said.

The sweet potatoes found in Polynesia split off over 111,000 years ago from all other sweet potatoes the researchers studied. Yet humans arrived in New Guinea about 50,000 years ago, and only reached remote Pacific islands in the past few thousand years.

The age of Pacific sweet potatoes made it unlikely that any humans, Spanish or Pacific Islander, carried the species from the Americas, Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez said.

Traditionally, researchers have been skeptical that a plant like a sweet potato could travel across thousands of miles of ocean. But in recent years, scientists have turned up signs that many plants have made the voyage, floating on the water or carried in bits by birds.

Even before the sweet potato made the journey, its wild relatives traveled the Pacific, the scientists found. One species, the Hawaiian moonflower, lives only in the dry forests of Hawaii — but its closest relatives all live in Mexico.


Different varieties of sweet potato on display at the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru. The sweet potato originated in the Americas and spread across the globe.

Robert Scotland

The scientists estimate that the Hawaiian moonflower separated from its relatives — and made its journey across the Pacific — over a million years ago.

But Tim P. Denham, an archaeologist at the Australian National University who was not involved in the study, found this scenario hard to swallow.

It would suggest that the wild ancestors of sweet potatoes spread across the Pacific and were then domesticated many times over — yet wound up looking the same every time. “This would seem unlikely,” he said.

Dr. Kistler argued that it was still possible that Pacific Islanders voyaged to South America and returned with the sweet potato.

A thousand years ago, they might have encountered many sweet potato varieties on the continent. When Europeans arrived in the 1500s, they likely wiped out much of the crop’s genetic diversity.

As a result, Dr. Kistler said, the surviving sweet potatoes of the Pacific only seem distantly related to the ones in the Americas. If the scientists had done the same study in 1500, Pacific sweet potatoes would have fit right in with other South American varieties.

Dr. Kistler was optimistic that the sweet potato debate would someday be settled. The world’s herbariums contain a vast number of varieties that have yet to be genetically tested.

“There are more than we could look at in a lifetime,” Dr. Kistler said.

For his part, Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez plans on searching for more wild sweet potato relatives in Central America, hoping to get more clues to how exactly a thin-rooted weed gave rise to an invaluable crop.

Working out the history of crops like this could do more than satisfy our curiosity about the past. Wild plants hold a lot of genetic variants lost when people domesticated crops.

Researchers may find plants they can hybridize with domesticated sweet potatoes and other crops, endowing them with genes for resistance to diseases, or for withstanding climate change.

“Essentially, it’s preserving the gene pool that feeds the world,” Dr. Kistler said.

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