April 17th, 2018

kieth: crazy

Day 107/365: Immigration (inspired by the Windrush story)

[Warning: contains swearing]

For context: Today's news features a story about the UK's Home Office threatening to deport a generation of Commonwealth citizens who came to the UK decades ago and were never issued with what is now required paperwork. The UK government is now making out that it is all a terrible mistake, cannot possibly be their fault, rather than a direct result of the increasingly hostile immigration policies it has been introducing for the last eight years or so. I am particularly incensed by Theresa May's "apologies", because the rules being used for the deportation orders were implemented by her when she was Home Secretary. These policies are not just hostile toward illegal immigrants. They are hostile toward all immigrants.

I say this as someone with direct experience of those policies. I came to the UK in 2004 on a domestic partner visa which cost about £300. I became a citizen in 2013. Indefinite Leave to Remain, the immigration exam and the citizenship fee cost me £2200. But it was not just the financial cost of legal immigration that ballooned during those ten years. When I first arrived - in London, which admittedly gives one a warped perspective on how much of a melting pot the rest of the country is (top tip: most of it isn't) - I experienced a good deal of stress. Most of the stress was cultural. I learned to navigate social cues, try to make friends, figure out the bus routes, cook with different ingredients, speak in the correct vocabulary, smooth out my accent, apologise constantly, etc. The cultural stress diminished as time went on. However, there was an element of stress that got worse the longer I stayed, and that was a direct result of the increasingly bureacratic, rigid, and expensive visa renewal process.

It took four weeks to switch from the domestic partner visa to my first Tier 2 (employer-linked) visa. I swopped to an HSMP (the now-defunct Highly Skilled Migrant Programme) visa as soon as I could, and from there to a Tier 1 visa (now inaccessible unless you're a millionaire or City banker) because it gave the holder the flexibility to work for any employer.

By the time I applied for Indefinite Leave to Remain, the waiting time for a visa renewal or switch was a minimum of six months. Perhaps that doesn't sound too bad if you've never been through the process. Let me tell you why it is that bad.

You cannot apply for a visa renewal until you're within six months of the expiry date of your current visa. The chances are, therefore, that your visa will expire whilst you're waiting for the renewal. You are, magnanimously, allowed to continue working at your current job while you wait for your expired visa to be renewed, and you'd better pray you don't lose your job during that period because you can't apply for a new job until the renewal comes through. Even if you are not particularly at risk of losing your job, allow me to assure you, it is deeply fucking stressful to go to work every day knowing that you are entirely at the mercy of your employer in order to remain legally in the country.

The Home Office has your passport. For six months. Obviously you cannot leave the country during that period. You can't travel for work. (This was a pain in the butt for me more than once at my job). If, heaven forbid, one of your non-UK-based relatives has the audacity to become ill or die while you're waiting for your visa renewal, you cannot go to them. Or rather, you can, but you have to somehow get the Home Office to answer a plea to return your passport. When they do, this will invalidate your renewal application. You will have to start over. Now imagine a scenario in which you are five months into the six-month wait. Your visa is about to expire. You have to arrange and attend a funeral for one of your parents. Then you have to return to the UK, hope that you'll be allowed back in, return to work, and resubmit your 150-page visa renewal application. And wait another six months, five of which will be spent working on an expired visa. Oh, also, one of your parents has just died. That doesn't sound stressful at all, does it.

This is all deliberate. The visa application system has been crafted to be convoluted and unwelcoming. The Home Office has been under-resourced to deal with the volume of paperwork it requires immigrants to generate. If you do manage to navigate the bureaucracy, to fill out the right forms and afford the fees and complete the path to settlement or citizenship, the experience leaves you permanently scarred. The feeling that you are second-class, that because your citizenship was earned rather than inherited, it is somehow still precarious and worth less than a native-born person, will never leave you. Not even when your children are born UK citizens. I know because I live this daily.

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