“I had this knot in my stomach constantly, and a void inside my head,” says Michael Braithwaite, as he remembers the days and weeks following the news that he had lost his job and even faced deportation from a country in which he’d lived almost his entire life.
“To think that maybe tomorrow I would not be with my family, or in a place I love, was devastating. I used to have bad nightmares. They were always very vivid. I’d be stuck in some unknown place, it was never the same, waking up not knowing what was going to happen.
“I had to hold onto my soul, my spirit, me as a person. I just had to hold on.”
Mr Braithwaite is 66 years old, a dignified and gentle man, quietly spoken, a pillar of his community. It’s hard to believe that he could be at the heart of a political controversy that involved the exposure of shameful government treatment of its citizens and led to the resignation of a home secretary.
But he is also one of the children of the Windrush generation of immigrants to the UK, whose guaranteed right to live and work here was recently threatened by the Tory government’s “hostile environment” policy of immigration.
More than 50,000 people, who came with their parents from Caribbean countries between 1948 and 1971, were suddenly losing their jobs, and facing eviction, NHS bills and even deportation, because they couldn’t provide the documentation proving their residency status.
A ‘Kafkaesque’ system
UNISON joined the campaign to protect the Windrush generation, with general secretary Dave Prentis condemning the “Kafkaesque immigration system that demands impossible evidence from those who rightly consider themselves to be British citizens”.
While public and media outrage finally forced the government to back down, Mr Braithwaite – who lost his job after 15 years of devoted service – is one of many whose life was already turned upside down by injustice.
He came to the UK from Barbados with his two brothers in 1961, aged nine, travelling on British Caribbean passports to join their parents. His father worked for the Royal Mail in London and his mother for the NHS, as a seamstress. From that moment, he says, “we regarded Britain as our home”.
He has his own family now, one child with his first wife, two with his second, Jessica, with whom he’s been for 40 years. After a few different jobs, in the early 1990s he became a teaching assistant at Gospel Oak Primary School in London, working in particular with children with special educational needs. It was a role that he grew to love.
“They have lots of kids with special needs, behavioural problems, autism. We grew a great bond between us,” he recalls with pride.
“I don’t know if that’s because of the way I work with kids. I’m very patient. Observation is the key I think, before you inflict any kinds of demands on a child. I don’t just rush in, I observe a child before making my first step.”
In love with his work
He made so much progress with some children that their parents would ask him to continue his work after school hours, for example by accompanying the child to the gym, or in other activities.
“I got great pleasure out of even little results with kids I worked with. It was something I really enjoyed, and it gave me a self-esteem. To work with children is one of the greatest joys you can have in the world. You can’t buy that feeling.”
And in recalling this pleasure, Mr Braithwaite starts to get very emotional. Because two years ago his family’s history in the UK, his passion for his job, his bond with staff, therapists, the children and their parents suddenly all counted for nothing.
In 2016, his school’s new HR department required him to renew a standard security check for anyone seeking to work with children or vulnerable adults. The problem was what it did next, when it informed Mr Braithwaite – wrongly – that he also required a biometric card to show that he was eligible to work in the UK.
Like everyone else of the Windrush generation, he hadn’t foreseen the need. Mr Braithwaite’s Commonwealth passport had ‘indefinite leave to remain’ stamped inside. He’d worked and paid taxes in the UK all his life. What was the problem?
“When this issue first came up, I was totally confused, because I never knew of a biometric card or what it meant to someone like me,” he said. “It was a perplexing and bewildering situation.”
‘No kind of compassion’
When he approached the Home Office to confirm his status, he was refused. Then in February 2017 he was called into a meeting with HR, his head teacher and his union rep.
“I was told that if I didn’t have a biometric card I couldn’t keep my job. There was no kind of compassion towards who I am as an individual. That was the confusing thing, because I’d done nothing wrong – I was doing a fantastic job.
“And to be told, basically, you’re an illegal immigrant, you have no rights to be in that job and you have to leave the premises – on that day, Friday 3 February – you could have pulled my heart out and chucked it on the floor.
“They took everything out of me: my confidence, my self-esteem, who I am. It tore me apart.”
And still he had to prove his right to remain in the UK. He needed help. The trouble was, as he puts it, “If my headmaster deemed me as illegal, who do I trust?”
He turned to Hugo Pierre (above, with Mr Braithwaite and Dave Prentis), a UNISON Camden branch convenor, who found him a solicitor, Enny Choudhury from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. “I had to trust somebody. I trusted Hugo and Enny. They were the only two people I could relate to at that time.”
With their help, he applied for a biometric card. But that required him to produce documentary evidence that he had been in the UK for every single year going back to 1973. It was an impossible demand.
Mr Braithwaite’s family, including his five grandchildren, were key to him holding himself together. “My family were so supportive. They tried to treat me as normally as possible. They didn’t mention anything about deportation. My grandchildren are like the soul to me, you know. They are the ones who made me think, ‘I cannot let them down. I cannot’.”
With Mr Pierre and Ms Choudhury on his side, and The Guardian breaking the escalating scandal earlier this year, the tide turned. Mr Braithwaite figured prominently in both the Guardian coverage and on Channel 4 News. And the Home Office finally gave him a biometric card.
The card is valid for five years. But his fear that he would have to go through the same nightmare again has prompted Mr Braithwaite to apply for citizenship, to resolve the issue for good – even though that is a costly and time-consuming process in itself.
While the school has offered him his job back, he hasn’t yet accepted. And his reluctance highlights the real cost of this kind of mistreatment – for individuals and also for the country.
“I still have anxiety, because the past two years have been a rollercoaster. And there’s still a bit of confusion in my head about why I had to go through this. I don’t think it’s going to go away just like that.”
Returning to his old job would be “like walking back into the fire,” he says. “I need to rebuild my confidence as a human being before going back into the education system.”
If there’s anything positive to come from Mr Braithwaite’s story, it’s the simple evidence of an incredibly dedicated public servant, educator, family man and neighbour, whose sense of self will survive his ordeal.
“I don’t like to think of this experience as dominating my life,” he says. “I want to be who I am. I love to be who I am.”
Any UNISON members who are affected by the government’s immigration policies, including retired members, can contact the union for assistance at: Policy@unison.co.uk