Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Thoughts on Immigration

Privilege is when you get conscious or unconscious benefits from a demographic trait about yourself that you cannot control. These benefits may be overt (getting paid more as a man) or they may be covert (being able to walk down a street alone at night without fear of violence). I want to stress the last type of privilege. A privilege does not have to be something positive; it can simply be the lack of something negative.

Checking your privilege doesn't mean anyone is asking you to say "I only have things because I am part of privileged groups." It does mean someone is asking you to say "By position of a characteristic I was born with, I have been helped, or at least not hurt, more than others without this characteristic." It does not mean anyone wants you to apologize for it; it does mean someone is asking for an acknowledgement of the implications of it, for how it has impacted where you are now, how it might be skewing your perspective or level of knowledge in discussing a subject, or how the lack of that same privilege may have made things different for someone else.
excerpt from the recent Jezebel post To The Princeton Privileged Kid

My experiences with immigration have been, in a word, privileged: I have applied for five visas since December 2007, and I have never once truly doubted that my petitions would be approved.  Of course I worried about setbacks due to improperly filled out forms and I felt helpless while waiting for faceless officials to administrate my paperwork, but I have been eligible for every visa for which I applied and, perhaps most tellingly, I have always considered myself an expatriate rather than an immigrant.

Over the past few years, as I moved back from London to DC because of the impending expiration of my unrenewable (under recently enacted legislation) Tier 1 visa, as Jon and I stressed out about our marriage visa so that we could wed in the UK, and as we've struggled through the process for Jon's green card allowing him to live and work in the US, I've heard variations on the same sentiment from even my most liberal friends:

I don't understand why this is so complicated - the restrictive rules aren't meant for people like you!

I'm Caucasian and Judeo-Christian with two advanced degrees, optimistic job prospects almost regardless of where I live, and a decent savings account, as is Jon.  However, our privilege doesn't help us in our immigration process.  It simply doesn't hurt us as it hurts those who don't check the "right" demographic and socio-economic boxes.

There are doors open to Jon and me that aren't accessible to others because we have chosen to immigrate/expatriate and we've had the freedom to follow every rule to the letter along the way.  There's no legal reason for us to not end up together in the same country, and we know it will work out eventually.  Regardless, we've been on a two-year rollercoaster.  We have felt completely impotent, at the mercy of bureaucracy and laws that, honestly, the staff of the government agencies with whom we correspond seem to not completely understand.  I can't even imagine the nightmare experienced by immigrants who aren't on firm legal footing.

The funny thing in all of this is, of course, that I know very few illegal immigrants, if we're using that term the way our elected officials and media outlets do.  Over the past four years, I've met nearly a dozen people who are living in - or were/are hoping to live in - a country of which they are not native who exploited loopholes, skirted rules, and, in some cases, knowingly embarked on illegal enterprises.  Of all of those people, only two were not born in the United States, Canada, or western Europe.  The majority of people I know who are taking advantage of the process enjoy the same privileges that Jon and I do, and, for the most part, they have fewer consequences to face should they get caught than if they lacked privilege.

Unsurprisingly, my thoughts on immigration have evolved dramatically since I submitted my first visa petition, but the root I come back to over and over again is that our system is broken.  (I think the UK's system is broken, too, but I'm specifically referring here to the situation in the United States.)  If the process is so overwhelmingly complicated and inconsistent, is it any wonder that people flout the rules when they think they can get away with it and even when, lacking privilege, they know they probably won't?  If there aren't real penalties for people who break the law, including for those with privilege, where's the punitive incentive to follow it?  And if we hold people who have are forced to identify as "immigrants" rather than "expats" due to a lack of privilege to a different standard, is it any wonder that I'm told that the laws aren't meant for people like me?

I leave you with no well-researched suggestions for reforms, dear readers; obviously the issue is nuanced and global.  But I do think we have to take privilege out of conversations about and policies on immigration.  As long as we think about it and legislate on it in terms of "people like me," the system will remain broken.

 photo 866de425-8336-4c63-9efd-1c4dd8bf0e62_zpsafe0d56b.jpg

25 comments:

  1. I always think I have been unlucky in many respects in terms of visa application. But luck has nothing to do with and I know that. People get upset on my behalf that things can't be more straight forward for me, but I get it. I am glad it isn't more easy to immigrate in some ways.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I have heard several American friends recently complain about the difficulty in getting a visa to move back to the UK with their spouse, that the rules shouldn't be in place 'for them' but that is so egocentric, and so selfish. Immigration is difficult. Period. We should feel lucky that we are in a place and from a country that does, in so many ways, make it easier. Things need to change, period, for us, for them, for everyone.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I am a second generation American - my grandparents came off the boat from Sweden right before WWII. We still have a lot of family in Skona who can't come to the US, who can only be granted 6-month visas, non-continuous. I have friends from Denmark who are treated the same way. Why? We have honestly had immigration officials say that it's because America already has too many white Europeans. My biggest fear is that we are not approaching equality in this country. If anything, we are dividing by race and gender and diverging from equality more than ever, and creating an environment where people assume that the only reason a person succeeds is because they are part of a privileged race or gender or sect - because he's white, because he's black, because she's a woman, because he/she is part of some special different community. How about we stop sticking labels on top of everyone, apply one set of laws {minus necessary provisions for refugees and people under imminent threat}, and go from there?


    Sorry for the long comment. I feel kind of strongly about this subject.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I agree that this is a global problem but you can only see the flaws in a system when you are a part of it. I have partaken in various expat related things online as it is a great blanket word for anyone living away from their home country but I have never had any illusions that I am not an immigrant. The thing is though that the native people I interact with view immigrants like you said in a very different light than an educated woman from a Western country and therefore say things to me like "o you live over in the immigrant part of town" and when I say well yes but I like it there and it just so happens that I am an immigrant myself they get the most dumbfounded look on their face.

    ReplyDelete
  5. well, I think luck can stick its nose in - say, if you do something incorrectly but get an incompetent official who doesn't notice or doesn't care instead of a competent official who knows the relevant law well! it's just another wrench in the process no matter who you are :(

    ReplyDelete
  6. yup. and I'll raise my hand and say that I absolutely complain about the difficulty we're having! but what sort of snaps me back into reality is when I explain to people that nothing's gone drastically wrong with our process - this is just how long and hard it is! the shock on their faces when I say that is always kind of a shock to me as well because most people know so little about the realities of immigration.

    ReplyDelete
  7. that's very true - as I replied to Andrea, most people don't understand the system because they don't have to go through it. a blessing and a curse, I guess?

    ReplyDelete
  8. Oh I complained too, that is the nature of being a human and trying to be with the one you love :)

    ReplyDelete
  9. Jess Gerrow / The Stroke BlogMay 8, 2014 at 9:52 AM

    Hear hear! I always love reading your thoughtful essays on this topic. Mostly because they are coherent, and my thoughts on the topic never are. Probably because illegal immigration is an extremely complicated (i.e. sad) topic here in Malta. But my one consistent thought:

    In 2014, when so many other barriers are crumbling, it is said to see immigration processes and laws are still as archaic as ever. In the US, the UK, Europe, everywhere. I hope it becomes easier for everyone - regardless of privilege - in my life time.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Thanks for this post, Betsy. When I first encountered your blog I was immediately struck by the privileged life you seem to lead, and it is a relief (this feels like the wrong word?) to hear you acknowledge it. It is wonderfully consistent with your blog's larger narrative. Also you have some great points :)

    ReplyDelete
  11. I do, no question, but I will say (a bit defensively, admittedly) that there are less charmed stories that I keep off the blog! Regardless, I totally understand the relief of which you speak and am really quite honored you feel that this discussion isn't out of place. thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  12. this is totally off topic but I SQUEALED when I saw "Malta"-- I spent 6 weeks there studying abroad in law school. It is a wonderfully strange country, and I'm dying to get back in the near future. Off to stalk your blog. :)


    and as far as the post.. without realizing it I perhaps had similar sentiments as far as "I'm surprised it's this hard for 'people like you/me'"-- those I deem of certain socioeconomic status.. which is obviously my privilege showing. I always love reading your posts on slightly more controversial topics, Betsy. So well thought out and phrased.

    ReplyDelete
  13. OMG my socio-economic privilege totally shows when I'm confronted with what I have to go through to emigrate to England because of the UK's relationship with the EU. I become the queen of BUT IT'S NOT FAIR!

    thank you :)

    ReplyDelete
  14. I really appreciate hearing your thoughts on this as someone dealing with the process. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  15. Georgia ChristakisMay 8, 2014 at 2:59 PM

    Interesting and very true thoughts. It's sad that our system has developed this way. It seems to me that every new wave of immigrants just stamps on the next group to come, which is sad. I'm a 3rd gen Greek; my great-grandfather came here illegally by lying about his age. What right does someone with my heritage have to tell people coming from Mexico, Central and South America and elsewhere that they don't deserve to be here? Aren't they coming for the same reasons my family did? It's just all wrong...

    ReplyDelete
  16. of course! I have ALL THE THOUGHS - I restrained myself for this post. there are so many other thoughts that people with different experiences have and I want to hear them all so I can appreciate where we are (the good and the bad) more fully, you know?

    ReplyDelete
  17. People have been saying the same thing to me about Gregory. They simply don't understand why it's not easier for us, but I'd bet my bottom dollar that if we were 'different' than we are, they wouldn't say that.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I realise that I sounded really patronising! So sorry! You have nothing to defend :)

    ReplyDelete
  19. As I'm currently in the throes of "oh-woe-is-me" visa nonsense, I feel like I could write essays on this. People are always so surprised at the intensity of the visa process for me. I keep reminding them, "But I'm an immigrant! Most of you support similar stringent immigration laws for the US!" Because I'm white, middle-class and educated, I don't fit the profile of the "bad immigrant" they've been taught to fear. There is definitely a sense that I should somehow be afforded special immigration privileges because of my background. And that makes me insanely uncomfortable. The only thing I can really say when I get those sort of comments is something along the lines of, "You know, I think most people who are immigrants are just ordinary people who want to live somewhere new. They want to work and pay their taxes and build their lives. Just like me."


    Every time I get stressed about this whole visa thing, I just have to remind myself to take a step back and be earnestly grateful. As harrowing as the experience is, it is so much easier for me than others. It's unfair and I wish it weren't like that. Too bad we couldn't all form some immigrant advocacy group, eh? ;)

    ReplyDelete
  20. Jess Gerrow / The Stroke BlogMay 9, 2014 at 4:04 AM

    Hi Kelly! That's so cool! When did you study here? I also studied at UM for awhile :) I'd love to hear about your experiences at UM and in Malta!

    ReplyDelete
  21. I could wax lyrically on the huge gaping logical discrepancies of the UK visa system. (In fact I started to do so but then it would take over your comment board. So I deleted it and started again) I was on the side where I knew my application could legitimately be rejected for many reasons (most of them having to do with finances and actors being self-employed) and there'd essentially be nothing I could do about it. It's a terrifying process for anyone, privilege aside- knowing that someone else holds a stack of papers that determine your future. But the whole process did lead me to getting involved in various immigration rights groups in the UK and some of the stories are absolutely mind blowing.

    ReplyDelete
  22. I was there from late May 2010 to late June 2010! It was a 6-week study abroad program that was led by professors from the host schools but our UM faculty adviser was great! I have no idea what her name was now, haha. I LOVED Malta. I wasn't the biggest fan of a lot of the people I was there with, though.. so I'd love to get back with my husband [then boyfriend, who came to visit me!] and soak it up again. We were there during the World Cup, too.. holy cow that was intense but such a cool experience. I actually blogged about it: http://withlovefrommalta2010.blogspot.com/2010/06/hippo-what-um.html (don't judge, my first real blogging experience and it makes me laugh but I'm glad I recorded it!)

    ReplyDelete
  23. Thanks, Betsy, for your post. I think the system is broken when people figure out it's easier to just come here (however which way), stay and deal with the consequences (which don't seem to be enforced). I think it should be repaired, taking into consideration marriage, family, special skills you bring to this country (both skilled and unskilled), refugee status. Geographic proximity should not be an excuse to ignore the many other people who would love to live here.

    ReplyDelete
  24. And I say this as the child of immigrants and an immigrant herself from a poorer Asian nation.

    ReplyDelete
  25. absolutely. the problem at the moment though seems to be that the system can't handle the legal repairs/reforms that have been enacted recently and so, since the necessary infrastructure isn't in place, everyone gets screwed :(

    ReplyDelete

I love reading your thoughts and suggestions! Please do leave a comment so we can get to know each other better.