In which I talk about something personal and political; skip if that’s not your thing.

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.

22 thoughts on “Immigration”

  1. I think you’re missing the point on immigration. Nobody said immigration was bad, most people think immigration is good. Uncontrolled immigration however, is pure lunacy, no matter which country you live in. It’s also not about closing the borders and putting a wall up. It’s about leaving a political institution that has overstept it’s boundries and is deeply undemocratic.

    1. I’m ambivalent about responding to this, SkyBlueRob, because I don’t want to sound rude or get into a debate, but I was a bit surprised to read your comment.

      I don’t think the author missed ‘the point’; I think the author relayed a personal story of their experience, and shared the frustration they feel at reading stereotypes about immigrants.

      I’m not sure that there is anything in the original post to debate. People may disagree about limits on immigration, border policies, and the merits of the EU, but I’m skeptical that we can have productive disagreements about the subjective experience other people have with immigrants and their own life experience of being an immigrant.

      1. Also, i would guess that the comment about the “really big wall” was not about the Brexit debate but (like the comment about giving everyone guns) a reference to the US presidential election, where one of the major-party Presidential nominees has literally and repeatedly suggested putting a really big wall up on one of the country’s borders to stop immigration.

      2. Immigration has been the key topic here in the UK this week, which is what prompted the post I’m sure. Very few countries have been as open to immigration as the UK and we always will be. The debate is about uncontrolled immigration. Very few accuse EU immigrants of being lazy, but again, that’s not the point. We’re a tiny island and we’re pretty full (and have enough lazy Englishman of our own to try to get into jobs). It needs to be controlled.

        If you write a political post, you have to expect a bit of debate surely? That’s what’s so good about democracy :-)

      3. If this doesn’t speak to your motives, skybluerob, then I’m glad to hear it. I have recently been on the receiving end of multiple conversation-rants that began roughly “of course, you’re one of the *good*/*honest* immigrants”, and sometimes went on to suggest that many immigrants are in the UK as benefits-scammers, contra the evidence. But matt w is also correct that I am partly responding to current US rhetoric too; also to some other recent reminders of human uncertainty and mortality.

        As it happens, I do disagree with you about whether the EU is all that undemocratic relative to the UK itself (looking at for instance this discussion); about how open the UK currently is to immigration; and about how much (further) control of immigrants is likely to improve the job prospects of UK citizens currently present. In re some of the issues around EU and UK governance — a bit off the main point here, but maybe also relevant to the charge of EU overreach — I also found this video instructive.

        But fundamentally, my point with this post was that there’s a lot of rhetoric appealing to people’s worse impulses and based on unpleasant and in my view false stereotypes. If you disagree with me on the facts, so be it. I’d much prefer that over a vote motivated by a visceral feeling that one has to be Tough to Survive or that Taking A Strong Stand is what’s really needed right now.

    2. I think you’re missing the point that, more often than not, the immigrants are moving to a country that has ruined theirs, whether through war, support of other powers waging war, consumption of resources, monopoly of the economy and/or just ruining the soil with bad farming practices.
      Once you’ve ruined someone’s home, you have an obligation to lend them yours.

  2. Populist xenophobia is unfortunately a thing right now all over the world. We can only hope it burns itself out before it does too much harm. The real reasons behind it have very little to do with immigration or even terrorism.

    Here in Denmark, the Danish People’s Party, for many years a right-wing fringe party, stunned everyone by garnering 22 percent of the vote and substantial power in the coalition government following the last election a year ago. Their rhetoric is very similar to that of many other European parties on the rise, not to mention Donald Trump: close the borders, Denmark is not and should not become a multicultural society, Denmark for the Danes, etc. I find it particularly sad to see it happening here in Scandinavia, which always provided an example to the world that you can have a thriving consumer economy alongside a government that actually takes care of the people who live there and tries to do its part to help the rest of the world as well. I guess there’s hope in the fact that 78 percent of the population *didn’t* vote Danish People’s Party, and those who did are consistently under-reported in surveys, which many people construe to mean they’re ashamed of having done so and don’t want to tell others about it. Hopefully 2015 was their high-water mark.

    Coming here, I had much the same experience as you. Even before I learned Danish, communication wasn’t that difficult because I spoke English. And Danes all know America or at least think they do (thanks not least to television), usually like Americans, and usually find American culture kind of fascinating. (Everyone always wants to talk to me about American football, a subject I know almost nothing about.) I can’t remember ever feeling the least bit unwelcome here. But even so, trying to adapt to the language and the culture has been a huge struggle at times. (Thankfully, I feel like I’m finally largely over that hump, and have come to feel really at home in this little land.) I know from the stories I heard from immigrants from other countries at my language school and other places that they have a much, much higher mountain to climb.

    Ironically, the fact that my wife *isn’t* a Danish citizen, just a permanent resident, made immigration here much easier for me. Because Danish law couldn’t be applied to her as a non-citizen, we went under the EU rules for immigration, which are much laxer than the Danish. We didn’t, for instance, have to put a big pile of money away for X number of years in a frozen bank account.

  3. My father was born in South Africa and my mother-in-law was born in Britain. I am Australian, they are Australian, and my kids are Australian. My mother and sister have both been arrested (but not charged) as they deliberately and peacefully sat in politician’s offices to protest the way our country treats refugees (specifically, locking them into offshore immigration camps where assault and worse are commonplace and they have no idea of if/when they’ll be released).

    Unfortunately, with both sides of politics working hard to increase xenophobia in the population (by not allowing reporters into detention camps, by emphasising “boat people” despite their relative scarcity among asylum seekers, and by saying things like “Australia is full”) since it’s such a handy political tool.

    Yes, this is a serious international problem. We don’t need to have open borders. We do need to accept our proportional share of the world’s displaced people. Studies show that immigrants reduce crime, increase GDP, and are beneficial to their new country in a multitude of other ways. Sometimes, stories like yours (Emily) can help people realise that compassion and common sense actually walk hand in hand.

  4. As a Brit who emigrated to America and who is considering moving back to Britain one day with an American spouse …

    I am ashamed of the xenophobia I sometimes see in both cultures, which is often just racism disguised as anti-immigration. As a white English male in the U.S. who is usually welcomed I have seen and heard the bigotry some of my hard working friends (and now family) of Mexican origin have received. I know from British tabloid newspaper articles and Facebook comments from extended family that there is a similar prejudice there against people from the ‘wrong’ countries or ‘wrong’ religion.

    Happily, I’m encouraged by the attitudes of the rising generation who are much more accepting.

    1. I’m not an EU citizen, but there are all sorts of knock-on effects that are likely to matter, from immigration policy (likely to become even more severe) to cultural effects to the economy. But it’s true that I’m not likely to be the target of direct hostility. I’ve seen some alarming reports of brown-skinned people being shouted at to go home. Which, brr.

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