THOUGHT: On Immigration, Identity & Brexit

I first arrived in the United Kingdom in September 2009 at the age of 23. The month before, I had come out to my parents as gay. Moving to the UK—and to London—was my first experience in a global, tolerant city as an out gay man. The UK for me represented a safe haven and a psychologically safe space to explore the self I had been repressing, in America, for 23 years. In 2009, the UK felt like the grown-up, adult version of what America could be—a society that had long ago achieved a consensus on basic points: a healthcare system that any citizen—regardless of income—could access free at the point of entry; a citizenry not at risk of death from either accidental or mass shootings; a recognition of same-sex partnerships (the UK introduced civil partnerships in 2004) and sexual difference; and ultimately a sense that the country was outward-facing, interested in the outside world, and welcoming to outsiders.

The decision by the British public to remove themselves from the European Union has changed my perspective, irrevocably, I fear, about the society I thought I knew, and to a small extent thought I understood after six years of residing here. The problem is not so much the decision to leave (though more on that later) but rather the vile, horrific way in which the campaign came back, again and again, to the issue of immigration. Britain has decided it wishes to flood the moat and pull up the drawbridge. A previously welcoming, hospitable society has taken a frightening and insular turn, the horrific consequences of which are being revealed through #PostRefRacism (look it up on Twitter).

It is important to point out that this inward turn and the negative (and racist) discourse around immigration that drove the EU/Brexit debate did not spring ex nihilo, nor did it occur in a short time span. It was instead the culmination of at least six years of aggressive policy changes designed to restrict and limit Britain’s contact with the outside world. Starting from late 2010, immigration law was changed to extend residency requirements for permanent residency/indefinite leave to remain/citizenship from three years to five years. A health ‘surcharge’ was added to visa applications. Income requirements on the British partner were introduced to spousal/partner visas. English language requirements were tightened. And, most recently, and drastically, a £35,000 salary minimum was introduced for non-EU workers wanting to stay in the country. The justifications for these changes have, of course, been that the UK, unable to restrict free movement from Europe, tightened restrictions on the only group it could control, i.e. non-EU immigrants. But the psychological effect has been one of legitimizing attacks (political, verbal—even physical) on all immigrants, and, indeed, anyone who does not ‘look British’ (=look ‘English’). Debate around immigration in Britain (as in the States) quickly loses any pretense of nuance.

I must admit I have never, ever understood the fear of immigrants. From the age of six months, I moved around the United States constantly (my father was in the Air Force), and so I was always the one moving, integrating into new communities, hoping to be welcomed. It has always made sense to me that people will choose to move, either for reasons of employment or family or, tragically, to escape conditions at home. What disturbs me about Britain today is its lack of understanding and empathy toward people—human beings—who seek to make Britain their home. People do not move, they certainly do not move to a new country, lightly or on a whim. There are costs—there are real human costs—to the immigrant experience, whether those costs are small, such as learning a new currency system, or large, such as being separated from parents, spouses, children, or friends. And immigrants are willing to make these sacrifices, because ultimately, like every human, they are trying to survive, and thrive. It is scary—it is fucking scary—living in a place that is not your home, and that is why I have never bought into the—bullshit is the only word that comes to mind—that ‘these people won’t assimilate’ or they ‘don’t value our culture’. Wearing a headscarf or continuing to speak Polish (or take whatever example you will) is, among many things, a way for a human being to deal with and process the enormous change taking place in her or his life. Fixating on such outward signifiers as apparel (clothing, FFS) or language misses subtle but often far more important assimilations (plural) that immigrants undergo. Immigrants are being changed to a far greater degree, and far more quickly than the host society is by the immigrant’s presence. Some small examples from my own experience: I have changed the way I speak. I have changed the tone of my voice. I have changed my vocabulary. I have changed the way I spell. I have changed the way I punctuate sentences. I have changed the foods I eat, the beverages I drink, and the recipes I use. I still manually convert in my head from Celsius to Fahrenheit. I’ve changed the direction I look when crossing the road. I’ve stopped driving. All trivial changes, when looked at individually, but collectively they represent a significant change in who I am now versus who I was when I arrived in this country. And that’s me—a native (American) English speaker, and yet I still find there to be a considerable amount of mental work involved in navigating the British immigrant experience day to day.

I do, of course, recognise (ah! there I go—spelling words with –ise) that immigration does place certain stresses on the host country. Immigration causes crowding. Immigration causes a strain on services. Immigration increases waiting times. (Note that study after study has shown that immigration does not wildly cost people their jobs.) But the way to deal with crowding is not to kick people out of the country; a far more reasonable and less-costly-to-actual-human-beings solution is to expand services and invest greater amounts in infrastructure, using the tax income that immigrants overwhelming generate for their host countries. Immigrants generate billions more in revenue for the economy than they take in service-use or benefits. Crowding is not a failure of immigration; it is a failure of political will to allocate resources appropriately or constructively.

But the EU referendum, of course, was devoid of facts—or rather, devoid of a belief that a ‘fact’ could exist. Nigel Farage, outspoken ‘Leaver’, preyed upon people’s worst fears and prejudices, exhibiting classic scapegoating behavio(u)r, deflecting real concerns, real issues, real problems and blaming them on immigrants (and by extension the EU). The result of which is: never have I felt more unwelcome in this place I thought I would call home for the rest of my life.

My British friends (who voted remain), in an attempt to assure me—in what can only be described as a kind of #NotAllBrits argument—that they approve of my being here, and besides the immigrants being slated all over the television, and the newspapers, and the blogs, and the comments sections of articles, and attacked on the streets, and shouted at to ‘Go back where you come from’, aren’t the kind of immigrant I am, have taken to arguing the following (actual quote!): ‘You’re an American. You’re white. They’re not out to get you’.

As if that’s a consolation.

As if that covers over the last six years of increasingly restrictive immigration policies.

As if the Pandora’s Box of hatred toward immigrants that has been opened can be easily directed or contained.

As if that shows any respect at all to the suffering of real, actual, living, breathing, working, playing, growing, struggling human beings who have to put up with shit just because they want to make a life for themselves, on top of whatever pain they are experiencing in being away from home either through their own (difficult!) choice or through circumstances beyond their control. 

I am enormously privileged to be a white, American male living in London where, in walking down the street, I am not immediately noticed or targeted for being an immigrant. (Being gay is another matter—definitely been harassed for that.) But I am, legally, a guest in British society, and, through its campaign, its decision in the referendum, and the racist aftermath, Britain has demonstrated that it no longer wishes to be a welcoming place. Which is of course its sovereign right to do so. I was perhaps too presumptuous, or else didn’t understand as I ought to have done the mentality of what it means to live on an island nation.    

So what to do? I am particularly torn because I am married to a British man. I have friends encouraging me to stay—weather the storm; let’s build a vision of what we want Britain to be, together. But as I run through possibilities in my mind of what that looks like, practically, I come up against this barrier: citizenship. I have now lived in the UK just long enough to apply for citizenship, but have put off doing so, because I have been saving up the money (£1200!). But as I contemplate what it means to stay in the UK and become a citizen, I wonder: what will I become a citizen of? In the wake of the referendum, Britain is quickly disintegrating into its constituent parts (Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, England). With the break up of the United Kingdom, ‘British’ identity—the only identity that could bind together such strong national identities—will cease to exist. British identity held the hope and possibility of being part of something greater. British identity was inclusive; it was an identity for immigrants—whether fresh off the boat or here for several generations; it was an identity for members of the Commonwealth; it was the identity through which the UK accessed its European identity, the ‘identity-gateway’ into the EU; and it was ultimately the identity through which residents from different parts of this island related to each other. With that identity collapsing, all that remains are the independent national identities, but I am not Welsh, I am not Northern Irish, I am not Scottish, and even though 500 years ago my ancestors came from there—I am not English. Embedded in each of these identities is something closely tied to geography, birthplace, birthright, and (because this is Britain) accent. I will never have an English hometown; I will never have a recogniz/sable English accent (no matter how much my own American accent has shifted into some strange transatlantic amalgamation over the last six years). In becoming a citizen I could only become—and, at the heart of it—only want to become a citizen of Britain. Of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

But a citizen of ‘England’? It is too small, and too narrow an identity to have enough room in which to move—a consequence of the referendum the Brits are soon to discover. As the UK begins the process of losing both its EU and its UK identity, what psychic trauma will the British people experience as they revert to their smaller, more insular identities? Will they discover a hole in their own sense of self—one to be filled with fear, or sadness, or grief, or to collapse altogether, leaving a people who will bear a collective trauma for a generation, maybe more? What ill devices will be wrought in such painful circumstances?

If I do stay and apply for citizenship it would only be as an administrative formality to preserve the one union that has been constant in my time here—my relationship with my husband. It would not be the joyful, positive, optimistic taking on of a new self that even a few weeks ago I had imagined it would be, but rather a protective measure against an uncertain future, a future in which citizenship matters even more than it does now. Or, perhaps I will return to America. It is not, by any means, a perfect country. The immigration debate in the States has been raging far longer and far more viciously and insidiously than in Britain. But it is a kind of home. One, admittedly, I chose to leave because how I felt about myself as a gay person was intricately linked to how America felt about gay people at the time (I admit I develop not entirely rational associations between the national-political and the personal). But in six years, America has decided, through political will, to begin the process of change. As for immigration in the States, its discourse still has a long, long way to go, and the racism immigrants experience in the UK is mirrored (even amplified) in the States, through an even more bellicose media and through the rise of an ideological demagogue (who will remain nameless). But I do have cause for hope.

I have been wary of the idea of ‘national service’ (given its close associations with militarism), but perhaps a return to the States is an opportunity to take my experience in the UK, and turn it, in some way, for the benefit of the American political project of ever more perfect union. It is always difficult advocating for political positions in a society where you are a guest—people (especially the British) take umbrage very quickly; nobody likes a stranger telling him or her what to do. But in America I can be an advocate—through art, through activism, through my vote—for people who, for whatever decision or force of circumstance, decide to come to America. Perhaps I am deluding myself. Perhaps I am too naive. Perhaps I am too hurt to think clearly. Perhaps I should just be grateful that I have the privilege to make this decision at all.

To leave, or to remain? And if to leave, then how? Like Britain, I have a decision to make in this strange and unsettling time.