You Won’t Like It Here: Immigration Stories
When Amanda and I first landed in London in October, I steeled myself to face the notoriously strict UK Border Agency, but even after preparing myself, the experience left me mildly traumatized. The immigration official asked me more probing questions than most job and scholarship interviews I’ve completed, delving into what felt like an inexhaustible list of topics.
The official who inspected Amanda upon our initial arrival wasn’t satisfied by the astronomically expensive visa permanently attached to her passport, instead asking for documentation to prove that she had been accepted into a program and was receiving funding from the Rhodes Trust — all questions she’d answered again and again in order to get her visa in the first place.
I know they’re just doing their jobs, but let no one ever accuse them of not performing them with an exacting attention to detail. As Amanda and I have traveled across different parts of Europe, I have found each country’s differences in approaching immigration very instructive.
Traveling in Europe and the UK (Which Is Not Europe)
After Amanda finished classes in December, we flew to Rome for the start of our holiday vacation to Italy and Germany. Plastered along the walls of Gatwick Airport, we saw signs offering Brits the opportunity to change pounds into euros in case they were traveling to “Europe.” As an American, I can’t help but chuckle at the UK’s insistence that they are not really part of Europe — but they are often almost comically adamant about it.
Once in Rome, we approached a border checkpoint booth containing two guards chattering away in rapid Italian. I handed my passport to an official who was much more interested in continuing his conversation than in me. With barely a sideways glance, he opened up my passport, said, “OK,” and handed it back to me.
Quickly, we compared notes: Amanda’s official had stamped her passport, but mine had not. After a few minutes of agonizing, we walked back toward the one-way checkpoint and asked a different official to stamp mine. I was betting that the Germans and English would care a lot more about my lack of a stamp than the Italians did.
At first, the official asked me which line I came through, then gave me a nonplussed look while I pointed vaguely to my left. He stamped it with a look that seemed to say he didn’t fully understand my level of concern, but then re-entered his booth and shut the door, waving me on.
Nearly one month later, after a wonderful time celebrating the holidays and traveling with our two close friends who are in Germany on Fulbright scholarships, we were flying back to soggy England.
Surrounded by the horrible yellow of the RyanAir terminal in Bremen, we wearily approached the passport control where we would leave the Schengen Area and return to the UK. The guard hit me with a barrage of questions:
“Ven did you enter ze Schengen Zone?”
“Vere are you coming from?”
“Vere is your stamp?”
I fumbled with my passport and was finally able to open it to the page with a stamp showing we had arrived in Rome’s Fiumicino Airport roughly a month ago. He inspected the stamp, tapped the shoulder of the guard who was simultaneously searching Amanda’s passport, and then said, “Ah, Italy,” while giving me a knowing smile.
The German guards seemed supremely concerned that I follow the rules, in the way that Germans often are, but not actively hostile toward immigrants like the UK Border Agency.
I say all of this not to poke fun at the Italians (having studied Latin America and done more traveling in that region than in Europe, I’m more understanding of the Italian attitude), but because I find differences in immigration between countries fascinating.
Why Don’t You Come Over?
In short, immigration is a contentious issue wherever one travels. The United States is concerned about immigration from Mexico. Germany is concerned about immigration from Turkey. The UK is concerned about immigration from literally everywhere.
I’m only half-joking. Given my own status in the country, I’m understandably interested in the immigration debate here. The conservative government in the UK (in addition to 60 or 70 percent of regular voters) have made it a goal to reduce immigration levels drastically, from their current levels of 150,000 net migrants per year to the lower tens of thousands. This has been particularly hard on students, reducing their numbers by an astonishing 56,000 in the last year or so.
Growing up in the United States and studying Latin America has thickened my skin with respect to offensive comments made about Hispanic or Latino immigrants, seemingly often by conservative Southern politicians. But I have been shocked not by comments made by the average Englishman, but by the official actions taken or proposed by their government.
For example, check out this “stupid and offensive” ad campaign that consisted of billboard-clad vans driving through London boroughs with high concentrations of immigrants carrying the message: “In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest.”
Or the racially charged campaigns targeting Bulgarian and Romanian workers, as UK controls against immigration from these countries were lifted following their European Union membership. These ads basically tell Romanians and Bulgarians that the UK sucks and they shouldn’t come.
To their credit, Romania has spawned a hilarious grassroots ad campaign called “Why Don’t You Come Over?” The gist? If the UK is so terrible, then they should come spend their tourism dollars in Romania.
The Romanian newspaper Gândul set up a site where Romanians could post jobs, Brits could view and apply to those postings, and Romanians could volunteer their couches or time to show Brits around their country.
With slogans like “Our draft beer is less expensive than your water,” “We serve more food groups than pie, sausage, fish & chips,” and “Half our women look like Kate. The other half, like her sister,” it’s been wildly successful, worth over €2 million in free advertising.
The UK government canceled the ridiculous campaign. (To be fair to the UK, they weren’t wrong: The weather is miserable, everything is overpriced, and their food isn’t anything to write home about either.)