How I became a citizen of your green and pleasant land

zastavicaThis is not, in fact, a post about Balkan societies and cultures. It is a digression. A long digression.

Part I: Les étrangers arrivent

No, I didn’t move for political reasons. I didn’t like the malicious far-right government my country had when I left in 2007, but I don’t like the malicious far-right government this country has now, either. And I didn’t move for economic reasons either. My pay is a little bit higher here but the cost of living is much higher. Mostly I moved because I was bored with my job and decided to apply for one that looked more interesting.

For reasons that are too structurally ossified to go into now, a lot of the academic staff at UK universities are foreigners (even though the government is trying to make it harder to hire them, in one of its many masochistic political sops to the xenophobes). This means that the visa, residence and citizenship process represents for them both a work obligation and a cost of employment. So how does it work? Like clockwork, assuming your clock is made of wax, ball bearings and meat by-products.

First comes the business of receiving “entry clearance.” Ordinarily this is done by the employer sponsoring the employee for a work permit. For reasons I have never understood, my employer was not able to do this for me, and so I had to apply for an individual visa. I applied under the (since discontinued) “Highly Skilled Migrants Programme,” a category designed, apparently, to attract wannabe corporate capitalists (which I’m not) under the age of 35 (which I wasn’t). The application requires documenting all earned degrees, so I had to get a letter from my dear undergraduate institution affirming that my BA was taught in English – the registrar helpfully provided one specifying that the Spanish literature classes were not. Since transcripts are apparently not sufficient evidence, they also asked for originals of the degree certificates. These are large decorative objects designed for hanging and not meant to document anything – sadly, my certificate from the University of California is not signed by the Governator or even the Mighty Mr. Moonbeam, but by one of their predecessors, the hapless and featureless Peter Wilson. So I took those out of their frames and figured out a way to send them (they are still in a cardboard package in my office, waiting for the day in the distant future when I bother to get them framed again). And I had to document my income over the previous two years, demonstrating that it was above the level below which they do not welcome the highly skilled. Gathering up the documents and filling out the form took a bit less than a month, and off it went.

So imagine my surprise when my visa application was rejected. The reason: they told me that I had provided copies rather than originals of my US tax returns. In fact they were neither copies nor originals, since like a lot of people in the US I filed tax returns electronically, using software designed for that purpose. But even if I had used the traditional paper form, I would not have the original to send to UK immigration; that would have been sent off long before to the US Internal Revenue Service. They did not tell me whether I had the right to appeal the decision, and did tell me that I could expect to receive official notification and my documents back within 8 weeks. The letter I did eventually receive (I demanded an electronic copy) told me that I did have the right to appeal within 14 days, which would have run out 42 days before the promised delivery of the notification.

This was an interesting introduction to a system designed to deprive people of their right to appeal. How did I get around it? Thanks to Google and an oversight. The immigration agency makes itself systematically unreachable, but there is a minister who oversees it. The ministers also make themselves unreachable, but the person who held the position at the time had put her personal e-mail address on a document that someone had posted somewhere. So I wrote to her and, amazingly enough, she replied. More amazingly, she assured that I could exercise my right of appeal.

So another round of correspondence and several exchanges of documents later, I was the proud holder of a UK entry visa. And thanks to the efficiency of the process, arrived at my new job a month late.

Bonus: my symbolic capital went up with my East Euro friends, who held on to the quaint belief that Americans would be greeted with less hostility than they would.

Part II: Kadija ti sudi

Two pleasant years of living and working in the UK later, it was time to renew the visa. The major change was that the category of “Highly Skilled Migrant” no longer existed and so I had to become a “Tier 1 migrant.” This was certainly a loss, as it is a lovely thing to have an official document certifying that you are “highly skilled,” but nobody is attracted (Goths maybe?) to a vale of tiers.

The 75-page form mostly involves documenting things that you already had to document to get the original visa, plus showing that you had income above the minimum required level over the previous two years. The first part was easy enough, and I thought the second one was too: I sent off two years of collected payslips and two years of annual tax statements issued by the revenue authority. And since whatever the name of the immigration authority was at the time (they change their name every two years, and their quality of service never) had the documents and our passports, hoped dearly that they would reply before we went off on our Balkan summer sojourn.

It was a little bit surprising to get another refusal – and that two days before we headed off on our trip! The reason given was that I had not documented my income from two sources by providing both pay slips and tax statements. Since I do not work for the revenue service, this was untrue. But with too little time to do anything about it, we went off on our trip, and on our return had the delightful experience of being detained for questioning at the airport.

I consulted with a lawyer about appealing the refusal, and was told that they had brought similar suits several times and had won them all. But he also advised me that suing the immigration authority costs more than making a new application, and that this would also be faster and simpler. So I sent off the forms again, this time with more copious documentation, and that roadblock was removed.

Later I heard two things: 1) that the immigration authority very frequently loses court cases because they do not bother showing up to defend themselves, and 2) at least rumour has it that people are encouraged to reject applications for renewal made more than a month in advance of the expiration of visas, because that way they can collect the fee twice. This is what the economist Anne Krueger famously labelled “rent-seeking behaviour.”

For the next six months I was detained at the airport every time I entered the UK. When I asked why, I was told that my passport had been “tagged” because of the earlier decision to refuse to renew the visa. When I asked how to have the “tag” removed, the agent said “I’ll do it now.” And so began a period of relative peace.

Bonus: I now know airports very well.

Part III: La lotta continua

Three years passed, seasons changed, and it was time to either apply for permanent residence or leave. This was the longest form and most extensive documentation of them all! We had to provide all of our financial and residence records covering all of the previous five years (bonus: we calculated the total amount of money we had shovelled over to dodgy landlords), make a declaration that we had never committed genocide, the list would be long but suffice it to say that when we weighed the documents we were providing it came to 8 kg.

And then there is the delightful “Life in the UK” test, 24 multiple-choice questions designed to challenge your knowledge on things like rural speed limits, the patron saint of Wales, and the fruits preferred for observation of Halloween. What the test actually looks like: you get a little booklet filled with facts, many of them inaccurate or outdated, which you are expected to commit to memory. Then after paying a fee you go a test centre equipped with computers that ask you your multiple-choice questions. You are given 90 minutes to complete the test. I completed it in two minutes, and I was not the first. Surveys repeatedly show that the vast majority of UK citizens could not pass the test.

The fun part is this: you can send off the application, together with your passport, by post. Then the immigration authority gives itself a six-month time frame to respond. The six-month time frame does not mean that they promise to process the application and return your passport to you within six months; it means that they will not respond to questions about the status of the application before six months have passed. This is an excellent option for people who want to be deprived of the freedom of movement for six months (or so). Or you can pay double the fee and schedule an appointment to apply in person, in which case you get a decision the same day. Apparently there is also a scheme on offer in which the immigration agents come to your house to process the application for something like £6000, and it is not hard to imagine why this might be attractive to very wealthy people. In any case, it was clear that Option #2 was best.

There is an online portal for making the appointment to apply in person. When you go to it, it invariably tells you that no appointments are available. It offers the option of making the appointment in a different city, or on a different date. No matter: appointments are still not available. You have seen those advertisements from immigration law firms offering to fill out the forms for you and blaring “guaranteed same day appointment”? This makes it very easy to guess where the appointments are going.

A bit of research revealed that appointments are released between midnight and 1 on weekdays, and that the way to get one is to be in front of the computer during that period, clicking the same little button over and over. Eventually there should be an open slot somewhere. On the fourth night I succeeded in securing an appointment in Liverpool (you can forget about a London appointment, ever) on a date two days before our visas expired. We cancelled everything and prepared for the trip, showed up at the office at 8AM, and by 2PM had permanent resident status.

Bonus: Liverpool is not bad at all, there are many perfectly lovely places to dine and it has its own little Tate Modern.

Part IV: Heimat sweet Heimat

We could have remained permanent residents forever, there was no real need to become citizens. But then considering that the spirit of the Hostile Environment Working Group is very much alive, there is no guarantee of security from abuse. There are also considerable benefits for our child to having an EU passport (assuming the EU will last a little longer), and minor benefits for me (less mistreatment at airports). There was also a benefit to doing this before our daughter turned 18: a slightly lower fee, and not having to take that silly multiple-choice test.

So we did manage to make the application for citizenship, and pay one more enormous fee, a week before our daughter’s 18th birthday. There is a way to avoid surrendering your passport for an indefinite period for this one too: use the local council’s Nationality Checking Service, where they will (for a fee, but nothing like the application fee) review the documents, make certified copies of the passports, and send everything off to the immigration folk.

They lost no time in taking the fee, but that was where efficiency and responsiveness ended. For this application, too, the “standard of service” is six months, and here, too, that does not mean that they do the job in six months but that they do not answer questions about it until six months have passed. If you guessed that those six months did pass, then you were right. And then some more time. So this is the point at which they promise that if you ask them what is up with your application they will tell you.

What happens when you do ask them? Well, there is an e-mail address called “nationality enquiries.” If you write to it you get an automated message containing a FAQ and telling you that if you want a reply to your message you need to write to another address called “further nationality enquiries.” This gets you an automated reply telling you that they will “make every effort” to respond within 20 days. It does not, however, get you a reply within 20 days. Or afterward. If you write to inform them that their 20 days have passed, you can guess what the response is: another automated message promising an effort to respond within 20 days. I never found out whether they pay royalties to M.C. Escher.

There then exists another avenue, to ask your local Member of Parliament to press the case. I did this, and there were two forms of response. One was a letter to my MP from the responsible minister (Charles Dickens actually did give this person the surname “Brokenshire”), claiming they would answer in two months why they had not managed to process the application in six months (fun fact: they never did). The other was a letter to me saying that they were delayed because they were intensively checking my information (there was nothing to check: everything had been verified on my three previous applications and checked once more by the “Checking Service”), and elaborating their service standard by telling me that the application would be processed “in due course.” So clearly neither asking nor complaining makes a difference, and the only thing there is to do is wait.

So we waited. The first sign of life was a letter asking for more money – since our daughter had turned 18 while they were holding the application, her citizenship ceremony would cost a bit more. The demand for extra money was evidence that after eight months our application had reached a living human being. Finally, nine months after filing the application, we received the letters of approval. Science has now established that making a new citizen takes as much time using bureaucratic means as it takes using biological means.

Finally a week ago we were able to attend our citizenship ceremony, at which we were asked to “affirm” our allegiance to the UK, its laws and the Queen (we could have “sworn” our allegiance, but that is for religious people, who were seated on the other side of the room). Getting through this does not yet mean having the passport, which will involve more forms, more fees and (probably) more delay.

Bonus: free tea and little cookies at the citizenship ceremony.

So that, it seems, is how it is done. Except that the largest political parties, pressed by populist bigotry movements that they seem unwilling to resist, want to make it more expensive, more burdensome, and rarer. As a citizen, I will be able, at least, to vote against them.