Around the world, people are giving rounds of applause to the seemingly tireless healthcare workers on the front lines of the pandemic. While this is a thoughtful and well-deserved gesture, it’s worth a reminder about the immigration angle. We should take a snapshot of the praise being lavished upon healthcare workers, many of whom are Caribbean immigrants, and then bring up that snapshot during the next wave of anti-immigrant sentiment.
UK: Windrush Generation and NHS
In the UK, for example, people are applauding the workers of the National Health Service (NHS). But over the last few years, as a result of the waves of anti-immigrant sentiment, Home Office has either worked actively to remove, detain and/or block from re-entry legal Caribbean immigrants from the Windrush generation, or has been neglectful to the point of having the same effect. A read though the comprehensive report on this scandal — prepared by the HM inspector of constabulary appointed as independent reviewer, Wendy Williams — can be jarring at times.
Named after the 1948 Empire Windrush ship that picked up Jamaican servicemen and others from Kingston and sailed to England, the Windrush generation saw waves of Afro-Caribbean people, mainly from Jamaica and Barbados (which remained British colonies until the 1960s), come to the UK to work in sectors such as healthcare that badly needed labor. They were often invited to serve the Empire and did so out of a sense of duty. As writer George Lamming, who came from Trinidad in 1950, noted,
There were adverts everywhere: ‘Come to the Mother Country! The Mother Country Needs You!’ That’s how I learned the opportunity was here. I felt stronger loyalty towards England.¹
They brought their children, raised families and helped the UK evolve into more of a multicultural society. They became British through and through. In fact, many of your favorite Three Lions footballers have roots in this generation.
Many of these immigrants are current or former NHS workers. As the report notes,
NHS managers went to parts of the Caribbean in search of nurses and other young women to train as nurses. By 1955, 16 British colonies had set up selection and recruitment agencies to create a supply of would-be nurses for a health service that would need overseas men and women to be able to meet demand for healthcare.²
These duty-bound men and women (and many of their children) from the Caribbean and other former colonies are the ones taking care of us now. Let’s remember this during the next wave of anti-immigrant sentiment.
US: “Shithole Countries”
As for the US, it’s often the people from “shithole countries”, as President Donald Trump reportedly referred to Haiti and African countries, who take care of us during times of crisis. President Trump reportedly asked, “What do we want Haitians here for?” Go down to your local hospital right now and ask that question again. (But really, don’t go to a hospital right now unless you have to. It’s a war zone.) When my daughter was born a couple of months ago, we received amazing care from all of our nurses who came from Ghana, Jamaica and the Philippines. (Thanks, Mount Sinai West!)
My wife is the daughter of Haitian immigrants. Her family members are amazing people who love this country and many of them, including her father, aunts and cousin are on the front lines as nurses, hospital workers and EMTs. To describe them, I would use the same words the media likes to use to describe the white working class: salt-of-the-earth, hardworking, duty-bound, patriots who love America. (In addition, as author Ben Fountain notes, “You haven’t lived until you’ve had Haitians stay in your house.”) So here’s a heartfelt thank you to Raymond, Tatie Judith, Tatie Ginou, Tatie Flore and Liz for all that you have done and continue to do. (And those are just the ones with whom I interact. There are other nurses and healthcare workers in my wife’s extended family.) Yes, President Trump, we all need Haitians in our life. Sak pasé!
¹ Windrush Lesson Learned: Independent Review by Wendy Williams. Page 32.