I have a very distinct memory of being in my elementary school classroom sometime in the early 1990s during a social studies lesson. We were taking it in turns to read passages from our textbooks about the movements of people around the world. I remember the smell of the binding and the colourful maps adorned with bright arrows showing the routes of migration across the continents and seas. The bold keys words leapt off of the page: migration, emigrate, immigrant. These words had not yet taken on a political flavouring in my young mind and yet this lesson sticks out in my mind like a rock in the middle of the sea of my childhood. I couldn’t know that over twenty years later I would be an immigrant.
When I first arrived in the UK, I didn’t intend to become an immigrant. My time in Durham would be limited to the year allotted on my Tier 4 student visa — the time it would take to complete my master’s degree. I would then return to the United States and slip back into my life albeit with a new qualification and hopefully more choice as to profession. I didn’t plan to become so captivated by a research idea that I would want to stay in the country to further my studies. I didn’t plan to fall in love with the United Kingdom as a country and as a place to call home. I didn’t plan to fall in love with a British person and want to spend the rest of my life with him. I didn’t plan to find a permanent position at a university in this country. I didn’t plan to become an immigrant. I just did.
I used to refer to myself as an ex-pat. It was the word that for reasons of class and privilege always came first to mind when describing myself. It was only after a rather uncomfortable conversation with a friend that I began referring to myself as an immigrant. She explained that the label of “ex-pat” is one that is reserved for a certain kind of person who has moved to another country. In strict definition, it describes a state of living in another country that isn’t necessarily permanent but it has become code for a privileged class of immigrant – ones that we don’t mind moving in next door to us because they aren’t terribly different from us to begin with. Others? They are the migrants, the immigrants, the ones you hear about on TV. In referring to myself as an ex-pat I was throwing up a wall of protected privilege around my status. I could protect myself from the divisive political attacks against immigrants because I wasn’t one of them. No. I was an ex-pat. Since that conversation, I have only ever referred to myself as an immigrant.
Brexit has done untold damage to the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world and the conversations around it often devolve into barely concealed racist rants against immigrants from certain nations in the EU and beyond. I will never claim to know how it feels to be a person from one of those places who is demonised based on their country of origin, the language they speak, the religion they practice, or the colour of their skin. Though I am an immigrant I am still a white woman from the United States dripping with the privileges that identity connotes. What I can appreciate is the dehumanising process and feeling that being an immigrant bestows upon a person.
For the past seven or eight months I have been quietly battling with my own immigration daemons. I discovered that the Tier 4 visa that allows me to stay in this country for the duration of my PhD was issued with an error. It was set to expire a full year before it was supposed to. I began to contact the relevant administrative offices in my university only to be met with silence. For weeks at a time my emails were going unanswered. When I finally received a reply, it was from someone who had clearly not read my emails. It was an assurance that my visa covered my registration period. I had to send a scanned copy of my passport in order to get any sort of acknowledgement that there might be a problem. Several months had already been wasted before I finally received an appointment to meet with a a visa advisor. Finally I would be seen; I would be heard.
Seen and heard I was. My months of panic were vindicated in that there was indeed a problem but it could be fixed. We would just need to send my passport off to have it adjusted. Now there was a new problem. The months it had taken just to get an appointment had brought closer three international trips that had been booked well in advance — my trip to Argentina to speak at a conference, my first trip home in over a year, and my trip to Malaysia to attend my friend’s wedding. Had my initial inquiries been answered in good time, I would not have had to postpone seeing to my visa until after I returned from my travels. Being told by the advisor that I should have seen to this sooner was almost too much. I had tried but I had been invisible.
I planned to initiate the process that would fix my visa as soon as I returned from Malaysia. Then an opportunity too good to pass up came my way. I applied for a permanent position at a university in the UK and miracle of miracles I was offered the job. I went away to Malaysia full of hope and excitement. I was going to have a sponsored work visa. The panic over deportation and separation from my partner and the life I had built here would melt away. I’d begin the process of being able to stay here permanently. It would take years and it would be challenging and expensive, but it was within reach. My problems would be solved.
When I returned from my trip, I began in earnest to get the paperwork in order. I cancelled my appointment to fix my student visa and focused on figuring out the process of transferring a Tier 4 to a Tier 2 visa. I emailed the appropriate administrative department at the university and eagerly awaited their reply.
I emailed again.
I phoned and left a message.
I emailed and phoned again. It is now going on four weeks since I was offered the position and I have heard nothing back from the HR department. Every day I creep closer to the day my visa expires and I will have to leave the country. Leave my home. Leave my partner. Leave the life I have made for myself.
I’m lucky in that the department at the university which has offered me the job have been supportive. I’m lucky that I have a supportive partner in Jeremy. But they can’t quite understand what it feels like when you are a non-person. They don’t know what it feels like to be a number in a system and not a human. They don’t know what it feels like to be invisible, to have no rights, to be an immigrant.
The feeling of being entirely powerless is overwhelming. What do you do when your emails and phone calls aren’t being acknowledged let alone answered? What do you do when you see the clock ticking down to when you will have to purchase a one-way ticket and hope that eventually, at some point soon, you will be able to return to your home and your partner and your life? What do you do when those things that most people can take for granted are in someone else’s hands?
The past year I have felt as though I was building my life on quicksand. Whenever I began to feel as though my life was gaining some stability I would be reminded by the shifting ground that I am an immigrant. That the clock was ticking. That nothing was certain. This is what an immigrant feels like every day, every hour, every minute. On occasion, you can push those feelings to the side. You can focus on what is happening today and take joy in the here and now. But those feelings are still there. Always. You lie awake at night and think about the day the computer will say no and you will be sent away from everything you’ve built and from those you love.
What I have learned and what I am continuing to learn in this process is that you must be your own advocate. No one but you will fight for you and your family and your life. There are those who will support you and will rub your back when the panic attacks come in the middle of the night. There are those that have gone through this before who will fire you up to march into that office and demand to be seen as a human being.
I’ve learned that nothing should ever be taken for granted; that living in the moment means treasuring the people you are with. I’ve learned that in order to make people understand things like immigration, the human story must be told; it must be made to stand bare in front of those who refuse to see it. This is more than a debate about numbers, spreadsheets, points, or statistics. It is so much more than bold keywords on a page and colourful maps with arrows. It is human. It is so very human.
Featured image by CECrane