Wednesday, April 22, 2015


Ed: I wrote, then forgot to post, this piece, about a month and a half ago. The election happened, the conservatives won, despite everyone's presumption, and we are on track for an EU in-out referendum in two years. The media have declared England the world power dead, that we're handing in our cultural dominance in exchange for the comfort and safety of insularity, and we might as well start a club with north Korea. At the time of posting Ireland is counting votes from their marriage referendum, and progress is looking likely.


Parliament has been dissolved in the traditional fashion. Hundreds of politicians have lost their jobs. Every party has jammed at least two leaflets a day through the door. Miliband and Cameron have been professionally insulted by Paxman. Snarky remarks and poorly thought-through policy promises have been flying around like gnats.

The anti-immigration rhetoric knob has been turned, yet again, up to 11.

I'm an immigrant, so it may not surprise you to discover that I find this kind of thing frustrating. But maybe not for the reasons one might assume. My reasons are not entirely altruistic, but I don't think they're rooted in bigotry or intolerance either. They are rooted in what I believe to be a completely rational, if rather selfish, appreciation for what is going on here in Europe.

I'm an American. One of the 'good ones'. I speak English, hold an advanced degree and work in higher education. I pay tax, shop at Waitrose and enjoy real ale. If I keep my mouth shut on the train no one gives me a second glance. I can pass for English.

Of course my colleagues and students notice my accent at work. My friends occasionally have an excuse to laugh at my ignorance when they discuss childhood TV shows and old pop music that I've never heard of. (For the record, dear reader, I don't get the impression I missed much.) I explain my origins at least five times a day for the first two weeks of every school year, a reflexive response to questions that I assume are asked out of courtesy. I don't mind, and nobody hugely minds me--at least not for my nationality. Very rarely a tramp on the bus or a drunk on the street will try to get a rise out of me, usually by calling me some variation on 'imperialist' as though I not only represent my entire country, but have some ability to control it. The two times I can recall this happening I have just walked past or pointedly sustained my conversation with someone else. It really doesn't keep me up at night.

What Does keep me up at night is my awareness that most people, at least in London, Don't lump me in with the 'bad ones'. That most people don't even think of me as an immigrant. My HR director completely forgot I was one until I showed up with my passport and a form to ask for an income confirmation letter for a visa. The fact that I'm married to a British citizen, in most people's minds, means I'm just about as English as Marmite, regardless of how often Border Control is in the news for breaking contracts and wrecking homes. "Yeah but you're, I mean, come on. You still can't vote? What? Not even in local elections?" "America still isn't in the EU." "Yeah but come on." "NATO, yes. I can request a missile strike, but not a Green Party candidate."

I do understand it, of course--America is the source of much of the world's generic culture, whether any of us like it or not. American-ness is a sort of cultural sponge cake that other countries may frost in their own unique way. Disney, McDonald's, Microsoft and all the rest are components of the minds of children the world over from the moment they're weaned, no matter how hard their parents try to avoid them. There's no escaping the American media machine--in the home, on the high street, in the classroom--not without going off the grid. Britishness may be smeared on top, but at the core, everyone with Internet access has a neutral American flavour.

So it comes as no surprise that it is fairly easy to forget that I'm foreign, that I'm subject to border control, that the new stringent, bigotry-based laws that even now are shattering families throughout the country apply to me too. In many heads I'm Not some undesirable outsider. I'm from where TV is from, and that's welcome in every living room, and nearly every bedroom in the country.

But herein lies the rub. When the conversation about immigration overlooks or excludes me, the conversation about immigration is weighted unfairly. Yes, some immigrants come from poorer countries and are here to work hard for a better life, even if it means their work undermines wage laws and other employee protections that unions strive to uphold. Yes, some immigrants come from fundamentalist countries and have the potential to be radicalised and make trouble. Yes, some immigrants aren't a gift-wrapped Thoroughly Positive Contribution to British Society. But I'm here, taking up space and air, and I didn't fly over here to rescue everyone. I could have gotten a decent job in the US but I took one that a British candidate probably qualified for. I could have found a house in the US but I moved into a terrace on a nice street that a decent British family probably deserved. I could have worked for a company with a health insurance policy and had reasonable access to healthcare in the US but I pad out the NHS's waiting lists instead. I didn't come here to work selflessly for the benefit of Queen and Country. I came here because I liked a boy. I still do.

 But when you consciously or unconsciously omit Americans, Canadians, Australians, South Africans, New Zealanders and other English-speaking, wage-earning, ready-out-of-the-box 'good ones' from the equation and focus only on people who may require a bit more effort to get settled then your find yourself spouting vitriol about 'immigrants' when what you mean to get purple-faced about is 'people from poor, Eastern-European-but-Newly-EU countries who now enjoy freedom of movement throughout the continent and are coming here in droves' and 'people desperate to get out of less-developed nations who exploited a loophole in UKBA's Tier 4 (Student) Visa programme by being accepted to imaginary universities and then disappearing into the ether, we hope not into human trafficking but it is hard to say because our border agency has done a terrible job of keeping records for the past ten years'.

The trouble with the first group is that clamping down on the borders in the usual fashion will do absolutely nothing to stem the tide (moving from Romania to Britain is now basically the same process as moving from Mississippi to New York--a bit culturally jarring, perhaps, but you don't need to ask anyone for permission unless you're on parole) and trying to stop it only demonstrates UKIP voters' incomplete understanding of the current state of the EU. Yes several new member states of the EU are economically very weak, are haemorrhaging unskilled migrants and have the potential to collapse and bring the Euro down with them, and (yes) it was probably not a good idea to let them in in the first place, but (yes) they did meet the basic entry requirements and (yes) it was hard to justify keeping them out when we let in Spain and Greece but (also yes) if Britain voted to leave the EU our economy would collapse so there's no point in threatening to leave. What might be useful is to work to strengthen the EU and improve its laws and the consistency of enforcement among all member states, but to appease the purple-faced screamers without all the effort of diplomacy we've passed laws that unconstitutionally bar non-wealthy people from living in the same country as their non-EU spouses. This is like throwing rocks at a dog after your brother punched you. I can see that you're mad, but this isn't addressing the root problem, and you're hurting someone who had nothing to do with it.

The trouble with the second group is that ultimately they weren't immigrants, they were criminals, and they were able to get away with it not because the country didn't have enough laws, but because the border agency wasn't enforcing them. UKBA was supposed to check the legitimacy of these schools and they didn't. UKBA was supposed to keep an eye on where people were coming from and where they were going and they failed. UKBA got a rousing shake-up and things have, from what I've come to understand, improved somewhat, but the solution to this problem was never to charge students and residents without indefinite leave an NHS subscription charge, nor was it to charge these people at the point of provision of care. But this is what the anger over this condition was somehow used to justify. Nevermind that a significant proportion of NHS employees would have to pay this surcharge. Nevermind that hundreds of thousands of immigrants already pay their fair share for the NHS with their National Insurance contributions and income taxes. Nevermind that students are not a significant drain on the NHS, and non-EU students basically bankroll UK universities.

But round and round we go, where the people's anger at circumstances they can't control leads to them cracking down where they can, but shouldn't. Americans really aren't that much of a problem around here, but most of the law changes have negatively affected us and in no way addressed the issues that Conservatives are angry about. This is how the Tory government managed to impose some of the strictest migrant controls this country has ever seen while watching their net immigration quadruple.