There were many things that occupied my mind when I was 16, but thinking about the kind of man I might marry was not one of them. Revision for my O Levels was a pretty big thing in my life about then, as was thinking about what I’d do at university, and which of my Dad’s science fiction books I’d read next. I gave no thought to who I might marry, or even whether I might marry.
By my late 20s, I had started learning Welsh and had ‘decided’ that I would probably wind up marrying a Welshman, if only to be able to move to somewhere picturesque and spend my time speaking the the Language of Heaven. I failed quite spectacularly on that front, only eventually meeting Kevin once I’d given up not just on the whole Wales thing, but the whole marriage thing as well. I was convinced that my natural state was single, and that I was going to be ok with that.
When I met Kevin, I was smitten the very moment he walked through the door to the foyer at BBC Television Centre out in White City, despite not knowing who he was, or that he was the person about to interview me for the radio. And even though it was very obvious that he Wasn’t From Around These Parts, I never for one moment considered the implications of falling in love with an alien.
I mean, you don’t, do you? You can’t. You have no way of knowing what’s in store for you, because no one ever talks about the practicalities of immigration. But as soon as you fall in love with a foreigner, immigration policy becomes a major force in your life, one that might destroy your relationship, destroy your future, if you make even just one, tiny slip.
Lots of people talk as if they know all about immigration. They have opinions, and they spout them unchallenged by reality, because no one really wants to discus the nitty gritty of immigration, they just want to throw a few soundbites around so they can ingratiate themselves with an audience who know even less.
Try falling in love with one of those dirty, rotten foreigners, one of those selfish people who come over to our country, stealing our jobs, shagging our women (or men) and spreading love and happiness in their wake… oh.
Loving an alien means putting your life in the hands of politicians. It means wading through pages and pages of barely comprehensible legalese. It means hoping that the rules don’t change whilst you’re in the process of legitimising your love’s presence in this country not of their birth. It means being given advice by people who only two years ago had a totally different experience because everything has changed in the intervening time. It’s knowing that if you hadn’t gotten lucky and applied when you did, the new rules would see your love thrown out on their ear because of an arbitrary decision made by someone with no grip on reality. It means wondering, especially in the early days of your relationships, whether your love might be tested to destruction by bureaucracy.
The worst part is the feeling of powerlessness that often comes upon an immigrant and their partner. The fact that there you are, standing in front of an immigration official in Liverpool, and they are complaining that the utility bills you have given them to prove that you’re in a legitimate relationship aren’t evenly spread out, one every three months, over the previous two years, despite the fact that nowhere in their directions do they explain that ‘requirement’ (which you suspect they’ve made up on the spot). As you wait for this anonymous stranger to make their decision as to whether your love can stay, you hear a couple at the counter next to you being told that no, his wife cannot stay because he does not earn enough money, even though this financial requirement is so new the media still think it’s just a suggestion.
I was sitting in a taxi the other day talking to the Bengali driver and explaining my current immigration situation. Whilst we were chatting, I explained how long it had taken Kevin to get his citizenship here, how torturous it was, how touch-and-go at times. He was shocked.
But, you’re married! he said.
Doesn’t count for anything here, I replied. The bureaucrats are so divorced from reality that they seriously believe that my husband and I might get married, move in together, get some bills in both our names, then move out again, then move in again a year later for another batch of bills, then move out again, faking it all the time just for him to get a visa. Seriously, anyone who believes people behave like that is capable of believing anything, and they will choose to believe the worst.
!!! he said.
Seriously, I said.
But you said he’s American, he said. I thought people like that just, well, walked in?
I laughed, a sad, frustrated laugh.
My Bengali taxi driver had internalised the media’s and politician’s lies about who immigrants are, and how easy it is for different types of immigrant to arrive and stay in the UK. His assumption was that, because we were white, we could just do what we wanted to. For him, it was an eye opener to discover that we did not, in fact, have it easy, we did not get special treatment.
Indeed, the UK government has so much shit to give that they like to spread it around as much as they possibly can. No favouritism here (except for the EU, but that’s only under protest – don’t believe they wouldn’t throw out all European immigrants if they could). My Bengali taxi driver was sympathetic, if surprised, and I felt a momentary bond with someone whose life has been and will be very, very different to mine.
But what about the times when Kevin has talked to people in America about how long it has taken to get my US visa, only to have them say something like, Why don’t you just smuggle her in illegally, ha ha ha. Or, my favourite: Those Mexicans come here illegally, so why can’t she?
Because nothing says ‘love’ so much as selling your wife’s safety to human traffickers and risking not only her physical and emotional wellbeing, but also any future you might have had together in America. But oh, it’s so funny to think of a Western, white woman being an illegal immigrant when we all know those people are nasty, brutish and brown.
These people suggesting that illegal immigration is a sensible replacement for the formal immigration process are just idiots who’ve never given a moment’s thought to how they would like to be treated if they had married a foreigner. They make the assumption that illegal immigration is easy, but they also seem to think that it’s in some way fun, that it’s a choice people make as simply and easily as you might choose to have a cup of coffee or an ice cream. They have no comprehension of the risks and danger involved, so they make weak jokes as a way to avoid having to think about immigration in human terms.
The problem is that there is no credible civil discourse on immigration, no way for people to learn about the realities of immigration: the limitations, the tedium, the risks inherent even in the official process, the fear of getting it wrong, the expense. The nonsense that the media dredges up comes from the sewers of their imagination bears no resemblance to reality.
People who haven’t been through an immigration process tend not to know the least thing about how it works. They have no idea even of what the rules are, particularly with regard to whether immigrants can claim benefits (hint: EU citizens, refugees and asylum seekers can, everyone else can’t). This means that they cannot spot the hyperbole, the lies, and the misrepresentation because they simply don’t have a reliable understanding of reality with which to compare the rubbish published by so-called news outlets.
This ignorance of the mechanisms of immigration allows prejudice and misinformation to flourish. Prejudice and misinformation causes public outrage, which then shapes the political agenda. Politicians and civil servants then use the outrage to shape public policy to meet their ideological desires, or to try to win votes from an increasingly reactionary and ill-informed electorate.
And caught up in the middle of all this are couples whose only crime has been to fall in love, and families who just want to be together.