Leah Mclaren

My battle with Britain’s mean, ineffective immigration system

‘Controlling immigration’ means being rude to foreigners — as I found out

My battle with Britain's mean, ineffective immigration system
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When I first came to this country nearly a decade ago, Britain wanted immigrants like me. Back then you could get a visa just for being creative. It was called the ‘Artist, Writer, Composer Visa’ — a Blairite flight of fancy if there ever was one — and all you had to do was fill out a form proving that you’d made a name for yourself in your country of origin in one of those three disciplines. The application, as I recall, made a point of including conceptual artists and sculptors. I’d published a novel in Canada, so I was in. It was that easy. Thinking about it now makes me want to weep.

Back then, Britain was more upbeat. There were jobs in the media and journalists still had expense accounts. Pizza Express was a place in which you might like to eat a pizza. The super-rich hadn’t yet bought up every last lush bit of west London, so when you walked through Holland Park during the day you might see mothers with their children, rather than lonely Filipina servants feeding ducks.

In short, life was good. Better than now, anyway, when the British weather and economy seem locked in a deathmatch for the title of historic new low. And despite this, I find myself back in Canada awaiting yet another visa, separated from my eight-month-old son by an ocean (he had to stay in London with his father for mandatory medical treatment and my residency permit was up) with no clear idea when or if I’ll be allowed back in the country and reunited with my family.

I won’t bore you with the intricacies of my immigration tale, but suffice to say it involves several visas, much ping-ponging across the Atlantic, a 36-hour border detention, over £10,000 in fees (legal and governmental), acres of paperwork and absolutely no hate crimes, terrorist activities or benefit applications on my part. The problem is not that I don’t qualify — I do. I have a British son and partner and a long history of legally living and working here off and on over the past ten years. But Britain doesn’t want me, or any new immigrants, at the moment.

I’m bad for business but, more importantly, bad for votes. David Cameron has promised to halve net immigration to Britain by the next election — a promise he seems to have made because it sounded good in a speech, not because it was really achievable. The problem is that he has no control over the EU nationals who come to settle. So the only way he can meet his target is to deter people like me: non-EU nationals. And if Britain is to be deluged by Bulgarians and Romanians, as the newspapers keep telling us, then the only way the Prime Minister can meet his target is to kick out an equal number of us former colonials. Or make the immigration process so unbearable that we give up.  So being rude to foreigners has become de facto British government policy — as I am finding out.

Ukip doesn’t want me here either; nor, obviously, does the BNP.  Even Ed Miliband wishes I’d get on a slow boat back to Moose Jaw. He did an ad on telly just to make it clear that he sympathises with people who think I should stop taking up space on this page (a British writer could be filling it just as well) and also made the point that it isn’t racist to say so.

These days, when someone calls me a ‘Yank’, or asks in a slightly derisive tone where I’m from, I try not to take it personally. I used to answer ‘Shepherds Bush’ until I noticed that only irked people further. Given unemployment rates and the state of the economy, this sort of anti-immigrant sentiment is understandable. As many commentators have pointed out, most recently David Goodhart in his book The British Dream, the UK’s post-war policy of openness to outsiders has not always been good for the country. ‘This is an open society struggling, not always successfully, to make good on its promise of a decent chance in life to people of all backgrounds,’ he writes. Of course this is true. It’s also true that the current system, manned by the twin monoliths of the Home Office and the UK Border Agency, is so inefficient and opaque that it defies all logic or reason.

When Theresa May declared last month that she was abolishing the UKBA, citing its ‘closed and secretive’ culture and 310,000-application backlog, I jumped up from the sofa and punched the air. Sadly this turn of events comes too late for me. As it stands, I can expect to be reunited with my family in a month or possibly two, provided the UKBA doesn’t see fit to reject my application on the grounds that there aren’t enough convincing holiday snaps of Rob and me or I’ve forgotten to include both originals and photocopies of every page of my past four passports — which my lawyer informs me they’ve been known to do.

I went to drop off my four-inch-thick application earlier this week on the 25th floor of a tower block attached to the biggest mall in downtown Toronto. This is not the British High Commission but a US company called ‘World Bridge’ which specialises in faceless bureaucracy. The young woman who fingerprinted and photographed me explained how the system works.

‘We’re not allowed to give you any advice here,’ she said, ‘and we don’t have any influence over the outcome of your application. After you leave here we’re not supposed to see you again and if you’re rejected it has nothing to do with us.’

Is it possible, I wondered politely, to actually speak it someone who decides? I was hoping to explain to someone, in person, about my baby son and his medical treatment and our forced separation. I needed to explain how his dad, who works long hours at a newspaper, is now also a single father on evenings and weekends, and for who knows how long? And how I’d never spent a night — or even more than a couple of hours — apart from my son until now. I thought if I could do this it might help speed things up. The young woman smiled sympathetically and shook her head. ‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘you can only speak to me.’

‘And you have absolutely no power or influence whatsoever?’

‘That’s right.’

The backlog is the problem, of course. If there wasn’t one, I could have stayed in London and applied from home. But according to my lawyer, the waiting times at the moment are somewhere between a year and 18 months. That’s how long the Home Office expects prospective immigrants to hang on without passports or the right to travel (or in some cases work) for a decision that will determine the course of the rest of their lives.

I suppose these monumental delays have a covert purpose, which is to act as a passive deterrent. If you make sure a system is broken enough, people will just give up trying to work within it and leave.

The truth is, a so-called ‘immigration cap’ is a fallacy for any EU member country — foreigners from all over Europe pour into Britain every day availing themselves of jobs and state-of-the-art healthcare without any hassle at all. There’s nothing shocking in this. That’s just how open borders work.

But in this new immigrant-averse Britain, there is only one group left to push around, and that’s people like me: non-EU immigrants. We are all viewed as grasping parasites until proven innocent, even the highly educated, English-speaking among us who come with investment portfolios and shipping containers of tasteful homewares. To make up for the torrent of EU immigration, the Home Office has opted to torture those of us it can with ever-more labyrinthine bureaucracy and rising fees. Presumably they figure those of us who don’t run out of money or become confounded by the process of trying to stay in Britain have proven ourselves worthy of the privilege. The reality, as David Sedaris, a fellow North American expat in the UK recently observed, is that they are ruling out anyone who can’t afford an immigration lawyer.

My situation is of course madness. But it’s madness with a message: if you don’t like the system, we invite you to leave. Please take a complimentary Daily Mail on your way out.

Instead of being held captive in Britain, I decided to fly back to Canada and apply to be my boyfriend’s fiancée. We’ll be getting married some time this summer. We’re both delighted to do so — but resent the Home Office telling us how and when.

Who does this system help? No one really, but I suppose it looks good. Making life miserable for my family, and non-EU immigrants in general, means David Cameron can make grand speeches about cracking down on the problem of immigration, even if it makes virtually no difference to the fabric of British society at all.