Now, this is a complicated set of issues, and I don’t presume that I have the answers… but, it’s just something that’s been on my mind lately.
I think that something needs to be done to reform the often arbitrary, often too strict, and often quite burdensome (on the individual traveler) system we have for granting border entry permissions (or not) for ordinary, upstanding people from friendly countries (or, hell, friendly upstanding people from unfriendly countries), in this ever more global world of ours.
The last time I went to the UK, the whole time I was standing in line I thought “I’ll just tell them I’m here as a tourist.” And then, once I got up to the desk, I guess my inner honesty and/or fear of authority got the best of me, and I told them I was there for an intensive course in premodern Japanese paleography at Cambridge. I think, if I remember correctly, I did have documents on me to help corroborate my identity as a graduate student, and to corroborate that I’d been accepted for this workshop. But, even so, of course the guy behind the desk, not being a part of such circles, would of course think that I don’t look like someone who should/would know so much about Japanese, that if I did want to study that why was I coming to England and not going to Japan, and so forth.
Thankfully, he let me through. But, sometimes the truth just doesn’t fall into the neat boxes of the 99% (I’d wager) of other cases of other people stepping up to that immigration desk each day – and for entirely upright, reasonable, and harmless reasons. Living the kind of life I live – an academic, not too entirely different from the self-employed web developer linked here – I sincerely worry sometimes about getting black marks on my passport, about getting detained or deported. The last time I was in Japan, too, I told them at immigration I was there solely as a tourist, and I got through easy, no problem, for 90 days (just like we US citizens also get in the UK, if you just tell them you’re a tourist). But then I proceeded to visit libraries and archives and do research, and to also present at a conference. In essence, I was doing exactly what this woman was turned back for – trying to get into the country to present at a conference we were genuinely invited to come to present at, and then also spending a few days/weeks traveling around, visiting friends, etc.
Should we all of us always just say we’re there for tourism, even when we’re really there for research, or for a conference? Is that how the system wants it to be? That people are lying, simply so as to not get caught up in the nitty-gritty details of whether or not it’s a paid engagement, who’s paying, whether this means it’s a “business trip” or not, etc etc etc.
This is the system we asked for. We thought it wouldn’t apply to “us.” We built it to keep Them out, to keep Us safe. But how quickly that system turns and engulfs the ones we love.
This quote is from a blog post by cartoonist / graphic novelist Rachel Nabors, an account which infuriated me, and inspired me to write this post, on issues I’ve been thinking about for quite some time. I would invite you to read Nabor’s account on Medium, to get the full story, the fuller chronological narrative of her emotional experience – an experience I would never want to experience myself, and would wish others should never have to go through either. I invite you to read the whole thing, but in a nutshell, she was invited to speak at a conference. She would be totally legally able to enter the country if she simply claimed to be a tourist. Further, according to the language directly articulated on the UK government’s webpage for US citizens applying for visas, “you don’t need a visa … if you’re coming to the UK for conferences, meetings, [etc., or] … a ‘permitted paid engagement’ (you must have been invited to the UK because of your expertise.” And yet, even though she brought a formal letter of invitation, and various other forms of supporting paperwork, she was detained for hours, without phone, without conditions conducive to sleep, without good food or water or shower, and was ultimately deported, not all the way home to Portland, Oregon, but only as far as New York City. All because of some technicality in whether or not she was getting paid for this engagement, and whether the ones doing the inviting and/or the paying were located in the UK (rather than being a German organization hosting an event in the UK, or some such complicating matter). Such bullshit.
Not only that, but the immigration system was so incompetent, so poorly thought-through, so totally unprepared to accommodate her particular situation that when she asked “was there any kind of visa I could get, currently or in the future, that would let me do what I came to do?,” she was told, point-blank, “No.” Are you kidding me? Really? How can that be?
Like myself, and like the next case described below, if she had lied and pretended to be a tourist, she would have gotten right through, no problem. Is this how the system wants us to behave? To lie? I appreciate the desire of governments to control their borders, especially economically – to divide the tourists from the business travelers, the temporary travelers from the longer-stay travelers – I get it. There are valid arguments to be made for the need to have all these technicalities and categories, and to require paperwork and so forth. But, when perfectly legitimate people are falling through the cracks like this – with severe emotional, financial, and career impacts, not to mention other forms of life impacts; heaven forbid you should be denied entry to a country and as a result be unable to be there to see your mother on her deathbed before she is gone forever, or myriad variations on that sort of story – that is just not right. Something has to change.
“I don’t understand why they are doing this to us,” my cell mate repeated, “We aren’t criminals!”
And, we’re the privileged ones. My stomach turns for the other women in Nabors’ story, who, even if they weren’t “profiled” and selected out for their dark complexion and/or non-Western citizenship, even if they were selected out for “fair” “equal” reasons with Nabors, would suffer so much more so due to their socio-economic situation; their inability to afford the time or the money to be detained and their travels derailed.
Here’s another example, of an American who was supposed to come visit and do YouTube collaboration stuff in the UK, and got stuck in Paris, unable to get let into the UK, because of paperwork bullshit. Partially because immigration people don’t understand what YouTubers do – is this a business trip? is it not? Who is this YouTube guy? Is this collaboration “just visiting friends”? Or are they “business partners”? Just because he doesn’t fall into the normal boxes of “tourist” or “businessman” or whatever, now he has to deal with all of this…
Many of us are fortunate to be privileged enough that we can afford to stay in Paris for X days, or in the case of Rachel Nabors, to stay in NY for however long and book her own return flight back to Portland. But I don’t think it’s hard to imagine (a) plenty of people, plenty plenty plenty of people who do not enjoy such privilege, and (b) plenty of times, plenty of cases, when even someone of “privileged” background like myself simply don’t have enough cash on hand at that time, or whatever, and can truly get stuck. The very first time I was in Japan, I was living in Tokyo at the time, and I took a trip to Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Matsue, and I planned it out poorly (I was only 20, a wee thing), and ran out of money. Didn’t even have money to get back from Matsue to Tokyo. And I couldn’t seem to find an ATM that would allow me to withdraw from my US-based bank account, and just to add to it all, I’d left my phone charger back in Tokyo, so my cellphone was dead too. Now, this doesn’t have anything to do with immigration or airports, but, the situation is relevant. What if Rachel Nabors, regardless of her comparatively privileged socio-economic situation overall, simply didn’t have the money at that time to be able to get back to Portland from New York? What if she didn’t have anyone in New York to turn to, to help her out? What if, regardless of how much money she may have had in her bank account, she had just by chance lost her bank card, and thus couldn’t pay for anything in New York (hotel, food, flight home)? One wonders how many people end up homeless on the streets of New York for reasons like this.
I have picked on the UK in this post, because the UK (and Heathrow in particular) happens to be where I have heard the most stories of people having precisely these kinds of problems. But my point is not to criticize UK policy specifically; rather, my point is to critique immigration policy overall, in so many countries. I have no doubt that non-US-citizens encounter just as much trouble, if not more, trying to get into this country, and even as a US citizen I’ve been amazed at how much procedures I have to go through just to reenter my own country. In this ever-increasingly global world, yes, the ever-increasing movement of people increases the severity of issues you need to defend against – that miniscule percentage of people coming into the country who are involved in drug trafficking, human trafficking, terrorism, etc.; or more mundane things of just issues of skirting visa requirements, taxes, import/export/smuggling concerns, whatever – but, at the same time, there’s still something obnoxiously paradoxical to my mind that we should have a culture, more than ever before, of travel, of gap years and study abroad and business trips and vacationing and so forth all across the world, and yet, even as it’s gotten so much easier in so many other ways (cheaper flights, multi-language services on the ground, job opportunities & speaking opportunities in other countries), on the governmental/bureaucratic level there are still so many potential pitfalls.
I want to be clear, I understand that when most people talk about “immigration reform” they’re talking primarily about Latinos/Hispanics, and the however many millions of undocumented immigrants already currently in the US today, and what we’re going to do for them. And I totally agree. That is a very real and very serious problem, and it needs to be addressed. These people deserve a feasible avenue to citizenship, and freedom from the fear of getting deported, and so on and so forth.
But, our world is a complex and diverse place, and Latin Americans are not the only people getting into this country. Our borders & immigration policies need some very serious reform, to help all people, “privileged” and not. Yes, something absolutely has to be done to resolve the issue of the millions of Latin Americans trying to get into our country, or already here, but something also has to be done to make it easier for British, Japanese, Russians, Indians, and Turks to be able to get and keep student visas, spousal visas, work visas, whatever, so long as they’re law-abiding citizens and so forth. Not to mention Canadians! The difference between going to grad school in the US as an American, and as a Canadian, just in terms of visas and so forth, in terms of staying in the US afterwards to work, etc etc, is just mind-boggling to me.
And, speaking of more short-term situations, tourists, conference presenters, business trip people, even while millions and millions of people pass through our borders unproblematically each day, with the proper travel visas and whatnot, there are always those, however small a number, who get truly, truly screwed over by a system that fails them – either because of simple accidents on the paperwork, or because of situations that just don’t quite match the normal categories. In some very very few cases, people can truly become (or remain) stateless because of bullshit like this.
The website Stateless Voices is dedicated to awareness about statelessness – the struggles of people who have fallen between the cracks of the global system. Here’s the story of a stateless man who was formerly a Soviet citizen, but became stateless when, following the fall of the Soviet Union and the establishment of new independent states, Azerbaijan wouldn’t recognize him (and wouldn’t grant him citizenship). He was granted asylum and lives legally in the United States – totally legally. He can fly from New York to California as much as he wants; he’s a legal resident here. But, when he went to American Samoa, boom, suddenly, even though American Samoa is part of the United States, still, he had to pass through immigration to get back to the US mainland, and, without citizenship, without a normal passport, it was a no go. So now he’s stuck in American Samoa, for how long, with nowhere else to go? He lost his job, he lost his apartment in LA…
Not quite the same kind of story as what happens when American citizens try to get into the UK, or Japanese citizens try to get into the US, to be sure. But, even so. And I think one of the key parts of this problem is that it’s almost like an arms race or something – I don’t know the proper metaphor – in terms of border protections. Criticize the UK, and they’ll say it’s only fair given the way US Border Control treats Brits. Criticize how difficult it is for a Russian to get into the US, and the US authorities will say it’s only fair, given how Russia treats Americans. So, who’s going to change first? Who is going to create more reasonable access, and convince the rest of the countries to follow suit?
I do understand that this is one of the core issues surrounding the Brexit, at least for a lot of people. Young people who voted Remain want continued access to relatively free travel across the 27 countries of the EU, allowing them to not only vacation all across Europe, but also to study and work there, much as I too wish to have access to the same – postdoc in the UK, or Ireland, or Germany or France or Italy or Belgium or the Netherlands? Yes, please. But, the racists and the xenophobes of the Leave campaign aside – those people are the worst sort of hateful assholes, and I by no means intend to lend support to them in any way – I do think there is some reason, some rather reasonable reason, to the idea of wanting to protect your national character, your culture, your identity, and to protect access for your own people to your own institutions. Diversity is wonderful thing, a wonderful thing indeed, so long as Britain remains British. I never went to England thinking I meant to contribute in any way to making it more American, or less British – I wanted to go to Britain because it is Britain, because of the culture and the architecture and the tea, and yes even the food. And if that Britain were to fall, were to disappear, I would mourn it. Not the twee, obnoxiously provincial “Middle America”-style little Britain of Clacton-on-Sea, but the glorious Great Britain of a London that is immensely cosmopolitan, a real World City, but that is still distinctively London, and hasn’t become just another New York, just another LA, just another… wherever.
I don’t know what the solution is, but I think that something needs to be done, to protect our countries, our communities, our cultures, while also making them accessible to others – just as we want the world to be accessible to us – without placing ourselves at risk, every time we get on a plane, that our paperwork won’t quite be in order, and that we’ll get detained, deported, or worse, just because something about the particulars of our situation is just a little too particular for the law’s strict and clean categories.
I have been fortunate, personally, myself, to have never had much trouble at all, at Heathrow, or Narita, or anywhere else. I’ve been fortunate, so far, to never get detained or deported or anything. But one should not have to rely on luck simply to be able to move freely, easily, legally, around the world. Hopefully I’m not jinxing myself by writing this.
… And, once again, I’m one of the lucky ones. US passport, visiting allied, friendly, first-world countries. Just imagine the shit people have to deal with when they’re Filipino or Brazilian, trying to visit the US like anyone else – whether as a tourist, or for a conference, or to visit family – or Indians, Australians, or New Zealanders, who may even have strong familial ties with the UK, but because they’re not EU citizens, have to get to the back of that other line, with the trash (i.e. us Americans).