In which I talk about something personal and political; skip if that’s not your thing.
I am an immigrant. I moved to the UK to live with my husband, after seven years of trans-Atlantic relationship. By the time that happened, our relationship had survived a lot of circumstantial challenge and a lot of time. Moving was, to put it mildly, not something I did on a whim.
Lots of people assume that if you marry a citizen of the UK, you immediately have the right to live and work here. This is false. Getting (and then repeatedly renewing) a spousal visa is a time-consuming, expensive process involving hundreds of pages of documentation, letters of support from everyone from your family to your landlord to your bank, and a hefty intervention from lawyers. If you are too young, or if you can’t provide evidence of the sponsoring partner having a stable, fairly comfortable income, you can’t do it at all. My being able to immigrate is a huge marker of privilege.
My immigration story is an animated fairytale compared with the reasons my ancestors immigrated. Like most Americans, I inherited many stories of why you might leave behind your homeland and everything you know. Such as: my Cherokee ancestors who were forcibly moved to Oklahoma. My Irish ancestors who were part of the Irish diaspora. My German ancestors who had been living in an area under Russian control until the Russians decided to do some ethnic cleansing.
That history was written in the character of my grandparents, even if I didn’t know how to read it as a child. The covert grief of my grandmother and her siblings, who chose not to speak about their memories because they didn’t want to pass those sorrows to the next generation. The capacity for work. The courage to take necessary risks. The disciplined pragmatism. The ability to triage, to recognize the important needs and not waste energy on stupid fights. My great-grandmother was famously uncomplaining, and when the homesickness and loneliness got too much for her, she would go into the pantry to cry where the family would not have to see. The worst of her experiences are known now only because her descendants chose to keep and translate her diary rather than discarding it.
Why am I mentioning this? Not as evidence. My anecdotes aren’t justification for a policy decision. There are all sorts of genuinely evidence-based reasons for why I think both the US and the UK benefit culturally and politically and economically from immigration, and I hope they/we vote accordingly over the next few months.
Still, I’m impatient with narratives about how immigrants are lazy or dishonest, and even more impatient with the implication that I’m a “good” immigrant purely because I have more money and have faced less trauma than “bad” immigrants. In my experience, immigrants are brave and hard-working; and, also in my experience, immigration itself is something you do in response to a compelling life circumstance.
My other point is this: I see a lot of aggressive posturing in response to fear. If only we all had guns, gun massacres would be a thing of the past! If we closed our borders, we’d exclude terrorism, disease, and meddling EU regulations! Hey, who’s up for a really big wall?
But the surviving-est people I know — the people who did what they needed to do to get through the Great Depression and the potato famine and the Trail of Tears and Russian purges, the people who crossed borders and broke new farmland because they had no other option — they left me the impression that that kind of bluster is purest nonsense. You don’t know what the universe is going to throw at you. You can never brace against it. There is no level of aggression that will keep you safe. There is no power or vengeance fantasy that will keep mortality at bay.
Instead, you pay attention to the evidence and make your best rational provision for the future. If you have a chance, you make friends. If you’re lucky, when something comes — whatever that is — you’re not facing it alone.