In Immigrant's Journey Through the Pandemic
A personal account of what it's like to be a freelance performer in thr UK while fighting to keep my visa, my career and my home during the pandemic
A lot of people recently have been incredibly surprised to learn that my lockdown-related stress has had to do with my visa situation, and indeed have been incredibly surprised to learn that my residential safety in the UK was not instantly sorted the moment I married my husband Stephen. The fact is that the visa conditions for non-EU residents have been terrible since Theresa May established the current requirements in July 2012, often described as gargantuan and found to break human rights by the UN a few years ago, their defining quality being that they were intended to create a hostile environment for anyone looking to immigrate into the UK. All of this has been properly reported as such, and I think a lot more people in the UK are blissfully ignorant of said actions delivered by their own government to immigrants (whilst others openly celebrate them and fully included them in their reason to vote Brexit, but more on that later).
The reason I decided to put this together is to give people an insight into what it is like to live in the UK as an immigrant, and even more so during the pandemic. I am writing this mostly from memory, as the Home Office official website has been updated numerous times since, to add numerous new rules over the years, and alter specific requirements such as the NHS surcharge, and most recently to comply with the UN’s advice regarding their findings in 2019 (and likely to help people out a little bit during the pandemic, or at least I hope so). Forgive me if this is different from your own experience as an immigrant, as so many things have shifted for worse (rarely for better) since I first came into the UK, but I am still trying to convey my own experience as a way to help others understand this struggle in itself (for my sake and any other immigrants who need a voice).
I want to separate this article into two parts, but they are so interrelated that it’s likely that they will end up flowing into one another, given that the original 2012 guidelines set by Theresa May, Brexit as it has unfolded, and the hit of the pandemic and how this current government have actively mismanaged everything have all affected many of us in similar ways. Unfortunately, there is no way to sugar-coat any of this, but it’s not the kind of thing that should be sugar-coated, either.
Pt. 1 - Original 2012 Non-EU Immigration Rules:
In July 2019, Theresa May was the Home Office Secretary, and, using the European freedom of movement as an excuse, tightened the rules for Non-EU immigrants in such a way that it made a particularly toxic environment for many of us, hence the descriptive of hostile environment. Now, before anything else, I will say that many understand why we are made to jump through hoops as a necessity, and that none of us have actually ever really complained about things like the NHS surcharge (which most are more than happy to pay), or that we need very specific documents to prove our marriage in case of spousal visa, and I have witnessed particularly in immigration support groups cases where people claim that the NHS surcharge is actually really small and that people who struggle to pay it should not be complaining at all, although I have found some of those cases to be ultra-rich people whose fees triple ours (because fees actually vary from country to country, depending on each country’s financial stability). My spouse fees started at $1,685.68 USD (as I applied from Mexico City) when I first got married in 2015, then £1,033 when I renewed in 2018, and next June they will be £2,389 plus £50 for the Life in the UK est, all with the option of paying a few thousand extra for one day or next-day resolution. They normally take around two months, depending on the kind of visa and the nationality of origin of the person applying, unless you pay for the extra fee. In 2018 I remember many people celebrating their own renewal having used the express service, for which they paid over £10,000 in some cases. My resolutions have normally come around three or four weeks’ time. As well as paying those fees, there are financial requirements that the person must meet, as well as the payment of the NHS surcharge, which varies from type to type of visa and between nationalities, as well, and it’s a non-negotiable fee.
When I first came into the country as a student, though, we were specifically told that it was the EU’s fault that the UK had tightened the borders against us. My experience was that apparently the EU had forced the UK to clamp down on our entrance, as before July 2012 people could get married, get their initial residency, and a year later make it officially permanent and even get their citizenship; or come as a student and get an entry-level job afterwards and get switched to work visa like that; or come in with a work visa and two years later have the possibility to get a permanent residency; and we were told that the EU was utterly angry at the UK for making it so easy for “us” and that “we” being here was just taking the places that Europeans should have by right. I hope you can see where this is going: none of that was actually real, but rather it was fed into the media and many visa counselling teams by a frankly xenophobic Theresa May and other government officials. Unfortunately, many people fell for that, and to my shame, initially so did I, even though family and friends from inside and outside the UK tried to help me see the truth. I spent many years trying to reverse the damage of my mistake, but to no avail. More on that later, as the Brexit vote is a lot more multi-layered than many give it credit for and I want to develop an entry just about that subject, but for now there is a lot more to be said about May’s actions as Home Office Secretary.
What Mrs. May did was to create a system in which rules would change little by little but substantially enough so that people who were on their way to get their visa might suddenly lose it on account of not noticing the new specification that had come up merely two months ago (in my case was like two weeks before my spouse visa appointment!), and raising the fees consistently every so often, including the NHS surcharge.
The way the NHS surcharge works, by the way, is that you pay a specific amount per year that your visa lasts for, but visas are rarely ever specifically one or two years: they are 1 ½ or 2 ½ years, so you need to pay the ½ as a full year, and even when you renew, you will have to pay for another 3 out of 2 ½ years. I will. For example: on a £100 a year student visa NHS surcharge, the student would have to pay 200 for 1½ year student visa. When I got married in 2015 and got granted my initial spouse visa in 2016, the spouse visa surcharge was £200 per year, so I paid 600 for 2½ years, then when I renewed in 2018 I paid another £600 for another 2½ years (and I narrowly missed on them doubling the fees just weeks after my renewal date, otherwise it would have been £1,200 for my 2½ years in 2018). They have obviously waived the surcharge for permanent residency, as there is no way to measure a permanent residency in months or years, otherwise who knows what else I would have had to pay this June. Like I said, most of us are okay paying something to the NHS, considering what it is for, but it also must be understood that this is all on top of us paying our taxes and National Insurance whilst being residents, *and* being constantly blamed by the media (and the government) for the NHS being run down, which far too many people have swallowed up over the years, unfortunately. Make no mistake, immigrants pay their share into the NHS, more often than not even more so than many of the ultra-rich. Oh, and by the way, I’m not sure how it is for other visas, but as both a student and a spouse, we don’t get access to public funds, so any benefits, UC or what the Tories call “handouts” are actually out of our reach. That’s what the income threshold is for, or at the very least that’s what Mrs. May claimed from the beginning and everyone else have regurgitated after her in her wake.
For people coming in with a work visa, the income threshold is just over £30,000, and for people coming in as a spouse, the threshold is £18,600 a year, which can be sourced solely by the UK national partner or in a number of combinations between both partners. This threshold is non-negotiable and doesn’t vary from country to country, what varies is the “admin” fee and the extra fee for the express service, and it’s not exactly negotiable, either, but at the moment they are giving alternative choices for people who might struggle to pay it due to the effects of the pandemic. In our personal case, as far as we know at the time of writing this, we don’t fit into those aid options, as both my husband and I are self-employed, but it might be worth looking into.
Now, the threshold itself is pretty high. It’s lower than the average of what people make in the UK, but that’s only because there is such a huge breach between those who make below £35,000, and those who make above £80,000, that it doesn’t matter that the majority of the population in the UK fall in the former; and that even then there is a considerable breach between those who make £15,000 and those who make £35,000 a year. That is all on the government’s heads, to be honest. There have been more than enough attempts to close that breach, including during the 2019 elections, but the Tories (including red and yellow Tories) have done everything they can to keep the breaches open, including ensure the majority of the population get given twisted information about how their taxes work and where they go, claiming huge inaccuracies about the immigrants and the NHS mismanagement that they themselves have led. A longer talk regarding this subject, austerity included.
I will make a side note here, considering the abhorrent claims the current Home Secretary has said about refugees as of late. Refugees should be treated with care and dignity at all times. End of. There is no discussion to be had about this one. They are not actually taking any resources away from anybody, and any help allocated to them should be given, financial or otherwise. Their case is not the same as immigrants by choice; their case is a lot more sensitive and very often all they wish they could be home instead of wherever they are taking refuge in, but there is no home for them to go back to, considering the circumstances under which they have fled, and many people should take all of that into consideration before attacking them, especially those from countries like the UK which actively take part in the destruction of said people’s homes. Priti Patel should hang her head in shame, if she even has any. I might also go deeper into this subject at some point, but for now I need to get back to immigration issues as such.
Pt. 2 - The pandemic and immigration:
Well now, this is an incredibly convoluted subject in itself. Even if we weren’t in the situation in which we personally are, having to have a very specific sum of money as proof of income so I can remain in my own home, most self-employed people in Britain have had it extremely bad, and all my freelance artist friends have had difficulties over this time in one way or another, so I am extremely conscious that it’s not just us – and very conscious of the worldwide issue in itself, too! But, in essence, I my mental and emotional health have genuinely suffered with the stress of it all.
The situation as it stands in the UK is that we are only just now coming out of what has been the third nationwide lockdown, and my professional life has really suffered because of the length of the lockdowns and the mismanagement of the crisis by the government. Even during the beginning of the pandemic we read reports of people whose visas were revoked because the badly-handled first lockdown made them lose their jobs or a substantial enough amount of income so that they weren’t suitable to receive the visa anymore. In our case, we are on our way to reaching the income threshold due mainly to the help from our families and community, all of whom referred us to colleagues for our freelance translation and editing services and all of whom have also been keen supporters of all our online shows and writing platforms (such as this one – writing on Vocal has been such a huge benefit through all of this!), whilst also buying our books or referring us to people who might be interested in what we write or put on the screen. While looking for jobs and professional opportunities, we even sold our car and other items, and I was even cleaning houses over the period between lockdowns, leaving no stone unturned to try to keep us on track for our visa. During the summer months in 2020 we were also able to carry on putting our His & Hers Theatre Company musical shows on care homes around Somerset, and I was booked to model for different local art groups, so that we were lucky to still be making some money from the profession that we chose and deeply love. The main problem with us is that we had only just launched into full-time freelance performing and modelling when the pandemic hit, so that all our plans and incredibly full performance and modelling schedule of 2020 got swiped off in one blow from the government. But I’m not referring to the lockdowns themselves: those needed to happen so that the pandemic could be controlled, but they also needed to happen in a controlled way, with full support from the government, not in the horribly hap-hazard way they did.
In short, what Boris Johnson and his team allowed to happen was to fuel all kinds of conspiracy theories about the Coronavirus and any possible intentions behind it, as anything the experts said, Johnson and his team either did the opposite or did begrudgingly and far too late, making the most gullible amongst us wonder “Well, if lockdown indeed works, then why did Boris Johnson say he wanted herd immunity instead?”, or “Well, if masks indeed work, then why did Boris Johnson not mandate them sooner?”, or “Well, if PPE is so necessary, why isn’t Johnson not giving it to medical staff?”, amongst other things. Then we had people blaming the NHS for the government’s failures, and even proclaiming that because the NHS were drained of resources *before* the pandemic hit, then it *surely* wasn’t the pandemic that was causing issues in the NHS, but only the lack of resources, thus downplaying the severity of the pandemic for anyone to hear. Please note that I am not referring to people who genuinely have a medical reason for not getting the vaccine, or who have actual issues with wearing a mask, but rather to those who actively misinform anyone who will listen to them. I have already written extensively about the damage conspiracy theories have caused during the pandemic in itself and how misinformation can be lethal and destroy livelihoods entirely, so I will invite you to look back on my past posts to read some more about my views on that, but for now I will draw your attention deeper into one specific aspect of said conspiracy theories.
One of the many versions of reality that I read on several people’s posts and comments, was how the pandemic had been planned so that all the governments of the world could control us, keeping tabs on us and observing our every move. There are different versions of this, one being that the vaccine would contain a microchip to track us, another was that the social distancing was deliberate so that “they” could implement facial recognition techniques (either via satellites or CCTV, depending on the version of the CT), and other variants that have to do with “them” watching us through our laptop screens, TVs and mobile phones. Now, putting aside the completely ridiculous idea that ALL of the governments of the world could actually plan this together and put in into motion, as this would mean that they would all have to agree on something (so laughable, to begin with!), or that some of them would be happy to let their economies crash while others succeeded (totally the opposite of any government interests), and that a microchip is ever so slightly larger than whatever fits into a needle (note the sarcasm in the wording), some people seem to have forgotten that we have already been tracked for decades over different social media platforms and with totally every-day things like the use of bank cards and literal GPS systems in our mobiles and cars. That’s not to say that we’ve been tracked to be controlled, but we have been tracked nonetheless. There are even apps for that, including apps that a parent or a partner can put on their children or their significant others, and if anyone didn’t get the irony of typing “StOp LiViNg In FEAR and Don’T leT THEM tRaCk YOU with the VACCINE” into their Facebook of all things, I’m sorry (not sorry) but they do deserve to be ridiculed.
Now, you might be wondering, why the sudden apparent segue into this particular conspiracy theory? Well, because the UK government has already, legally and with zero uprise from the UK residents whatsoever, has been actively tracking the full privacy of people for several years. Not a single current conspiracy theorist has commented on it or brought it up as something to be worried about, even though several immigrants and their UK partners have attempted for years to get the general public’s attention about this: one of the immigration requirements that the Home Office has been requiring since 2016 is the full record of the applicant’s social media/phone/Skype/WhatsApp/now Zoom/etc. interactions with their partners. Screenshots and printed threads, photos of their lives together and how they have handled being apart for however long they’ve needed to reach their income threshold. If they have had to be apart for 2 months, then whatever Skype/Zoom/WhatsApp conversations they have had on those. If they have had to be apart for 8 years, same applies. We were apart for 8 months, and there was a lot of interaction on several platforms, and very private interaction at that. Now, we very narrowly missed that requirement, as we got married in 2015, and the requirement was put into place in 2016 – and to be fair, I know of couples who have taken it in stride and actually made a full scrapbook of their interactions to hand in as part of their application and have kept it as a keepsake, which I find so sweet and endearing, but that’s not the point. Those couples chose that and they had the opportunity to do it that way, but for the most part, couples being apart suffer, and this intrusion into their private lives, which in many cases will certainly include nudes and sexting, is upsetting to say the least. As I didn’t have to hand any of that in, I don’t know for certain how censored the applications are allowed to be, but in any case: why anybody ever thought that it was okay to push that through as a requirement is beyond me, and I can’t even reconcile the idea that for years someone’s friend might have been watched in that excruciatingly creepy way and they didn’t care at all, but when the time to social distance or to get vaccinated came they were up in arms about their precious liberties and about fighting being tracked by “the government”.
I will say that as an immigrant in the UK during this pandemic, this particular issue has been an addition to my sadness and disappointment in the way people react to each other and to the community in general. Knowing, as well, that the whole ordeal of lockdowns and regulations could have been considerably lessened by people being rational and listening to the experts instead of the morons in Parliament (or several of the morons on social media who are actually getting rich out of people’s gullibility), then we might have been able to go back to more of a normal work schedule with the virus under control and the potential of having a proper recurring income source rather than having to stress each week and take any last minute commission in order to scrape by the income threshold and keep my visa, is something which has had me in more of a melancholy state than I’d ever wish to admit.
To add insult to injury, there have also been those CTs who blatantly accuse “the government” (and all actual scientific and medical experts) of discrimination and even causing apartheid against them for being anti-maskers or anti-vaxxers, when the actual minority groups who have historically suffered from said things, particularly Black, Asian and most people in the LGBTQIA+ community, are seeing a wave of renewed hatred and violence against them. Being in a marginal line amongst minorities, I have experienced enough of my share of racial abuse and discrimination to say that this is not an easy subject, and it needs to be treated with the consideration it deserves.
I will also add that up to a few months ago we were nowhere near the threshold, and if it wasn’t for family and friends mobilising and referring us to possible clients, as well as all the online work we’ve been putting on, we wouldn’t have made it through. We still need a considerable amount between now and mid-May, as my deadline is June 9th and I need to send the paperwork before that, but I feel hopeful that more commissions will come through, and that people will keep watching our His & Hers Theatre Company online shows and then book us for live shows and for modelling when all restrictions are lifted, as well as that people keep buying my books so we can keep the income flow that we need to ensure that my visa application is successful. My husband Stephen is currently working on a commissioned audiobook, and we’re looking forward to more of those, and I have ideas to get ourselves moving into the summer still as freelance performers and models, so there’s good reason to think that we will be able to continue being self-employed after all of this is over, but I still feel so tired from the process in itself, and I wouldn’t wish anyone to have to go through anything like this, ever! It shouldn’t be the kind of thing that one can understand only if they’ve gone through it. A note has to be added here to say that over the past year both Stephen and I have applied to absolutely everything we can think of (and a lot of what friends send our way), but I’m guessing that shops and businesses have plenty of applications coming it at the moment, so neither of us have been lucky on that front.
So, yeah, here you have it… If I had a pound for every time I get told that someone is surprised about our situation because they thought that it was enough that we were married, we probably would not have been as worried about the income threshold as we have been over the past few months…
I’m aware of how long this entry has become so for now I will go to bed, get some rest, and get up tomorrow to keep working towards my financial threshold in the middle of a pandemic, fighting for my visa, putting together plans for work in the summer, and sorting out our upcoming production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, because this is a time when all we can do is try, and I choose to keep trying!
As for you, patient and kind reader, if you’re interested in any of my books, my paranormal crime thriller Wideawake or my short story collection Tales from the Rooftop, or in watching any of our online shows, feel free to follow me as Sandra Tena Cole, or us as His & Hers Theatre Company on Facebook. Who knows, your purchase might be the one which puts us over the threshold – and just the thought of that makes me feel such a great deal of release!
Sending blessings and gratitude your way just for taking the time to read this,
Sandra Tena Cole ~ Actress, Model, Writer