Swimming Against the Tide

by Caitlin McDonald 7 months ago in humanity

Immigrating During Brexit

Swimming Against the Tide

I’ve lived in the UK since 2006 when I first came over for graduate school. Every year the immigration rules became more stringent, sometimes in surprising ways. For example, when I realised that the rules had changed when I wasn’t looking and would no longer be eligible for a tier one work visa after my PhD. This was because I’d spent my entire final year focused on my PhD (or severely depressed and unable to focus on anything, as is so common in academia) instead of part-time working and earning the minimum income threshold for tier one applicants. Now on the cusp of becoming a citizen, this journey has been the most dehumanizing, dispiriting, and wearying experiences of my life, touching deeply and painfully on my personal identity. I’ve hesitated to share my story because though I experienced it as great hardship in my life, I am still one of the lucky ones. I approached the process with the most possible privilege one can have. Though it was difficult for me, realistically my experience was by far one of the most painless of all the migrants of my acquaintance, and far, far easier than the journey that many others experience.

As I said, the rules changed every time I needed to apply for a new visa, inevitably becoming more restrictive for people in my category. It seemed like a joke, one of those personal curses that befall everyone. For instance, ever since I lived in a leaky houseboat on the Nile for three days (I gave up and moved to a real apartment after that) every house I ever lived in had some kind of flood. It was funny, a sign, the universe carving a special (if inconvenient) shape for me. “Look what they’ve done NOW,” I’d say glumly as yet another hurdle was introduced, or yet another privilege was removed. Yet, somehow I made all the hurdles and navigated all the restrictions. It was just one of those things.

But really, I should have seen it for what it was—a reflection of a social shift to mistrust and resentment of those who we think are not like us. “But they’re not trying to keep you out,” my British friends would say. “You’ll be fine.” And they were right, I always was fine. But the same was not true for people in similar situations, even those who fell in the “not about you” category of being from the "right" country and the "right" ethnic background with the "right" type of skills—divorce, a job change to avoid a predatory boss, family pressure to travel abroad to care for ill relatives, or any of the other myriad little things that cause us to color outside the lines of what the establishment thinks is a good, worthy and upstanding citizen got in the way for them. As a final irony, I become eligible to apply for citizenship on March 29 this year, a date that I imagine most Home Office officials tasked with processing immigration applications will be rather preoccupied with other matters.

I’ll always remember the summer of 2012 when we hosted the Olympics here in London. That, to me, will forever be the pinnacle of the place I wanted to call home—a spirit of optimism and national pride that was welcoming to those visiting, a collective delight in watching and participating in all the festivities on offer, a solicitousness that our visitors experienced the best of the UK.

Collectively, we had all but forgotten the mass riots of summer 2011 across England. 2012 seemed like the "real" London—fresh, vibrant, competent, welcoming, and remarkably good weather. The dissatisfactions and instability leading to the riots seemed, on the surface, forgotten. But the seasons they turned round and round and in 2013 we had “go home” vans reassuring the tetchy populace that the government was "doing something about the immigrant situation." Immigration officers making their presences known around key stations in London, including my own commuter route in Holborn, stopping "suspicious" people. Here’s where my cloak of privilege came in: I was certainly never stopped, nor would it have ever occurred to me to carry my passport or immigration documents around with me. But I did nothing as I watched them stop and question others.

Though the vans were described as controversial, they were clearly not enough to stem the tide of immigrant-blaming rhetoric that continued to dominate political discourse for the next three years leading up to the referendum. Inequality continues to rise in the UK and the best policies anyone can come up with are blaming those who we think are not like us. Policies became ever-more stringent for non-EU migrants with the government falsely blaming the EU for not being able to regulate the entering EU population. And then came buses, boats, and the vote: to virtually the entire nation’s surprise, the result of the non-binding referendum was a tepid yes to leaving the EU.

In the three years since I’ve watched hate crimes increase, openly racist language become the norm, and a complete departure from the facts appear to take over some people’s views of the world. As the world seems to grow darker and darker, one question rings ever louder in my mind, "Is this the place I want to call home?"

As the months drag on, no certainty about the future has emerged. We are just two weeks away now and still nobody can say for certain what will happen from March 29 onwards. Is this Y2K, which was a non-event due to the diligence and careful planning of sysadmins worldwide, or is this the Berlin Wall going up, which was a crisis that seemingly nobody anticipated? Is this gnawing vague fear justified caution or emotion without object? I don’t know.

As I type this I’m sitting on a stationary Eurostar train at Lille where we are being held for an indefinite delay because of new customs protocols being implemented in advance of Brexit. (Actually the French customs workers are striking, as the French are wont to do, but the strikes are in response to the extra workload because of the new customs protocols.)

For several months I’ve been feeling a sort of "gather ye rosebuds" whirlwind of nervous energy in the city. There have been many reports about consumers hoarding goods but there’s also a sort of “make the most of it, this might be the last time we can enjoy it” feeling in the air as well. I thought at first that it might be just me, just me making excuses for overspending on frivolous things like theatre tickets and impromptu splurging on meals or rounds of drinks with friends, but I think it’s bigger. I think many people feel themselves on the cusp of a change they can’t foresee and they’re coping with that in whatever way they know how, while on the surface mostly pretending nothing is changing. This halt in Lille is the first actual “it’s happening” moment for me. I know others have been experiencing much more intrusive effects like revocation of their academic grants, all the hassles of applying for residency status which they never expected to need to apply for, uncertainty about whether their jobs and tenancy agreements will still be valid, etc. But this moment here waiting on a silent train makes me think we are indeed in a collective St. Vitus’s dance, spinning with aimless and seemingly unstoppable energy until we collapse.

I really have no idea what my world will be like in the next three weeks. There is a part of me that wants to give up, to flee to somewhere more stable and sensible. With all the change I’ve seen so far, will this be the country that I wanted to move to? Or is it becoming a warped and tarnished version of the place I grew to love? There is another part of me that fiercely wants to defend my claim on a place that I think of as home, to amplify its strengths and nurture its virtues rather than watching it collapse into itself from afar. But all I can do in this moment, right now, is listen to my own breathing and the soft susurrations of the passengers around me as we sit together in the quiet, waiting for the train to move again.

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Caitlin McDonald

Award-winning scholar & writer on digital communities, data science, and dance. Tweets @cmcd_phd. Holds PhD in suitably unexpected & obscure subject. Very tall. Frequently a bit silly.

See all posts by Caitlin McDonald