Opinion: How the UK immigration system damaged my mental health #timetotalk

Time to talk 2015I wanted to talk a bit about how immigrating to the UK has affected my mental health, because both mental health and immigration are subjects on which I ‎look to the Lib Dems to support me with, via good policies and campaigning.

I’ve been in the UK nine years now, but when I’m standing in that non-EU passports line (I’ve long been eligible for citizenship but I can’t afford the application fees), I can’t help but hear similar interrogations going on to the ones I remember when I first came here and was interrogated by a big scary scouser for two hours– how long are you staying? how much money have you got with you? — I can’t help but think “that’s how it started…”

I’ve never seen any signs of anyone having as difficult a time as I did, though — luckily for me as well as them, because I don’t think I could handle the flashbacks when already immersed in the stress of travelling and by this point so close to home I’m just desperate to get back there.

That first time I flew to the UK, my feckless answers to the questions I was asked — I’d just had to drop out of university due to poor mental health, so I was met with suspicion because they weren’t sure I had any reason to go back home — led to even more questions, and having to wait while the whole next planeful of new arrivals were processed, and then more questions. My partner, who was waiting to meet me, was found and asked questions to see if his answers matched mine. My checked luggage was fetched and searched. Eventually the border guards had to admit there was no reason to prevent me from entering the UK, but they seemed almost disappointed by that fact.

Think I sound paranoid? Well as the old saying goes, it’s only paranoia if they’re not actually out to get you. And as an immigrant I can be in no doubt that the country I worked so hard and sacrificed so much to move to is out to get me, more lately than ever. I watch with not just intellectual interest but visceral panic the conversations unfolding on social media and down the pub. I cringe when even the party I joined for being pro-immigration is proud of cutting interpreters for people taking their driving test and talks about “British workers” and “British families.” it feels like we non-British are only talked “about”, never “to”. Much less talked _with_.‎ What is an abstract debate to some is a matter of life and liberty to us.

The closest I got to a honeymoon was wandering the streets of Chicago in hysterics, face red and tear-stained, because it was looking like bureaucracy might prevent me from getting a spouse visa. We were at the British consulate, armed with paperwork but still we’d missed something. Could it be sorted in time? We had flights booked back to the UK; my husband was due in work on the Monday because we couldn’t afford for him to have any more time off.

Eventually it worked out, but not before I was too panicky even to be embarrassed at what a pathetic figure I must have seemed. At first I worried I’d be a famous spectacle at that British consulate, but it struck me that they must see people frantic and hysterical all the time: this may be just paperwork to the staff there, but on this side of the bulletproof glass it’s our lives and futures at stake.

Neither my British spouse or I could claim any sort of benefits for the first two years we were married, a fact which almost immediately hurt us. I was the most mentally unwell I’ve ever been in my life — my only sibling died suddenly just before I’d planned to emigrate — and two months into our marriage the company my husband worked for went bankrupt. I honestly don’t know how we survived the first couple of years. I think my brain’s shielded me  by blurring the memories. Plus I try not to think about them, because they still break my heart. Perhaps not how a young bride is expected to remember her newlywed‎ period.

I hated taking the Life in the UK test, the one commonly referred to as a citizenship test though it’s not citizenship you get with it but a kind of permanent residency called Indefinite Leave to Remain. Citizenship is an option open to you later, but ILR is mandatory and just as complex and expensive. I hated the test not because it was difficult but because I knew the test had been implemented to pander to xenophobes and all it really did was prove I can speak English and pay a fee for it (you can take the test as many times as you need to in order to get a pass mark, but you have to pay what was for me a substantial sum of money each time)‎.

I know the system under which I immigrated to the UK has only become more draconian since I did so. I know I wouldn’t have been able to do so at all under the current system. I think of the last nine years of my life — the work and activism I’ve done, the strong friendships I’ve made to replace in large extent the family I left 4000 miles away, even the house whose mortgage my name has been allowed to be on, which I’m working hard to fix up now. With all of that gone, I don’t even know who I’d be. This country has in very real ways made me the person I am, and yet all it can tell me now is that it doesn’t want me.

Reading a news story, hearing a bit on the radio, or seeing Facebook comments on the subject can still utterly ruin me for hours afterwards. My husband has started to warn me when not to look at news headlines, offering me the sort of trigger warnings people usually associate with stories of abuse and assault and other such trauma.

But, for me immigrating and being an immigrant has actually been traumatic. It’s other things too, of course — necessary if I want to keep my marriage together, for one thing! — or else I wouldn’t do it. But it’s hard, and it’s getting harder the longer I’m here when I hoped it’d get easier.

* Holly is an immigrant, bisexual, disabled, and probably can tick most other diversity boxes that you have handy.

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13 Comments

  • James Brough 6th Feb '15 - 8:42am

    Our immigration system is a disgrace. I worked for UKBA as was for 11 years. It’s underfunded, staff are unmotivated, processes are sloppy, there is a refusal mentality and the whole organisation is a shambles with the applicants being the last thing to be considered. It’s shameful.

  • It has become a disgrace – The entire country has changed beyond all recognition since I was a child. It isn’t just immigration. The Egos of the population have become very dense and we have lost all sense of community and religion. Materialism is the only important thing now and the new idols are all the celebrities.
    We all need to take a good look at everything and see what we can do to change our world.
    The first place I started was Eckhart Tolle’s – ‘The Power of Now’, and ‘Touching the Eternal’. Very powerful and life-changing works. I also no longer watch Television or any mainstream media .
    I too have had terrible problems trying to get my wife and daughters here to the UK: I hit the bottle for a few months too subdue the misery – but I pulled myself back 🙂
    One thing is for sure – the politicians really don’t give a damn. And like Russell Brand says: ‘If there isn’t anyone who represents us (and there are lots of us affected by this strange immigration system), then don’t vote.’

  • Holly Matthies 7th Feb '15 - 10:15am

    Thom: I went to visit a friend who moved here from the U.S. around the time I did, and we went down to his local and genuinely found them in the middle of a pub quiz using questions from the Life in the UK practice-questions book that we’d both recently used to swot up for the test! I used to carry the book around with me because my British family and co-workers were fascinated by the test — every one of them was surprised I had to take it, thinking I was automatically a British citizen when I married a British person — and wanted to try out the questions themselves. None of them could answer any that they tried. They all found the test much too po-faced to actually be any use for life in the UK.

    Morag: if I’m not mistaken, your partner told me exactly the same thing elsewhere. 🙂 Thank you for your good wishes, and I send them to you and your partner too. xx

  • Now a well paying job in the UK is required before a visa is issued for a non EU foreigner married to a British citizen who wants.to bring his or her spouse to live in Britain.

  • James Brough 28th Feb '15 - 1:47pm

    @John Smith. That’s a remarkably ill informed and offensive post.You clearly haven’t noticed that the UK already has strict immigration restrictions in place and you obviously have no idea what unlimited immigration means.

  • Philip Thomas 28th Feb '15 - 2:09pm

    @Sion Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that your vote doesn’t matter on immigration issues. While it is true that no party is really proposing to make things better for immigrants and their British relatives, the Tory/UKIP proposed “British of Bill of Rights” is likely to make things much, much worse- and UKIP’s EU exit policy likewise. We can probably discount the Tory threat to Freedom of Movement within the EU as Angela Merkel has indicated politely they’re free to move that one off the table, but it is indicative of their mind set.

    No matter whom you vote for, make sure you vote.
    @James Brough- agree UK immigration control is disgracefully underfunded and also wastes resources on the wrong targets (like children born in the UK).

  • Holly Matthies 4th Mar '15 - 2:36pm

    Hi, John Smith!

    “You don’t have some divine right to live and work in this country,” you tell me. No, I don’t, and it’s a lucky thing too as I don’t believe divine rights exist. I do, however, believe that human rights exist, and the Human Rights Act does entitle me (and you! and everyone else) a right to a family life. Wouldn’t be much of a family life if I couldn’t live in the same country as my spouse, would it?

    “There ought to be strict regulations in place to ensure that the country isn’t swamped by immigrants.”

    What on earth could make you think there aren’t? They’re a damn sight worse now than they were when I moved here in 2006. The circumstances my husband and I were in at the time I moved to the UK would not allow me to do so at all, under the current system. I’m sure that’s a great relief to you, as you don’t want my taxes, my volunteer work, or anything else about me to taint the purity of your country.

    Immigration controls do NOT need to become stricter to ensure “indigenous English people remain a majority.” Immigrants — to the whole of the UK, not just England — make up a mere 13% of the population.

    The system is already so strict that not only is the indigenous majority not threatened by it, but there are already too few immigrants to pay for an aging Britain’s pensions and care of the elderly. Universities have seen drastic reductions in the income foreign students, who pay exorbitant fees, bring in. The NHS would grind to a halt without immigrants since a quarter of its doctors and nurses are foreign-born. Immigrants are generally physically healthy, with an education Britain didn’t have to pay for, and a willingness to do jobs your precious indigenous population thumbs its nose at.

    “Patriotic” Brits are caught in a strange loop here: they insist Britain’s great but don’t want anyone un-British to think so. People come to Britain from countries ruined by war, famine, corruption. There’s far less direct impact from those sorts of things here — isn’t that great? Aren’t you all happy about that? Aren’t you proud? Or is it just that you don’t want to share?

    Money and happiness and life are not zero-sum games. Someone else having them doesn’t mean you have less.

    “The fact is, many natives of this country don’t want to see unlimited immigration.”

    You’d think they’ve be happier, then, as they’ve never seen it. Not in their entire lifetimes. And I’m sure they never will! Rejoice, for your side has long since won the battle on immigration, and there’s no sign that anyone is willing or able to push you off your perch as king of this particular hill. My little cri de coeur here is nothing compared to the entirely of mainstream media and politics, all of which is happy to vilify immigrants as an easy target. You think I’m being narcissistic and that I expect politics to be all about me? it’s never about me. I’m a queer, disabled immigrant woman, so nothing good is ever about me.

  • I have found this article this morning, when I searched Google for “how to cope with the stress caused by the immigration system UK”. Sometimes the stress of going through this system is too much to cope and is overwhelming. My family and I have been in the UK since 2008. We are non-EU, highly skilled migrants (that is how we are calssified under this system). Watching how the rules are getting more and more complicated and listening to openly anti-immigrants rhetoric in the news does affect your mental help and your self esteem a lot. We are still going through the system, and the uncertainty about the future drains me. Sometimes I find it difficult to carry on. But having invested so much into this country over the past 7 years, I just have to carry on and make it happen. There is a lot of pressure, and this is particularly so, if you are a woman – you have to balance your relationships, childcare and are expected to earn an income that is in our case falls into a 40% tax bracket, just to qualify for the extension of your stay. It is difficult, as at the same time you are denied any social support (“no use of public funds” for us) or have a family here to help you. I think that the system is hugely unfair, lacks flexibility and insight into what it really does to the lives of the people that have to go through it. Take for example the new NHS fee that the people with temporary leave to remain have to pay now. Many of these people, like us, are already paying for the NHS because we pay our National Insurance (NI) tax. Why do we have to pay more on top of it? Thank you for the article, Holly!

  • Holly Matthies 24th Nov '15 - 8:18am

    Thank you for your comment, Natalia, and I hope you found this helpful. Unfortunately I don’t have many answers for how to cope with the stress (except for the usual stuff about managing mental state on an individual level — talk to your GP, look into medication or therapy, try to eat and sleep and exercise and generally look after yourself, difficult as I know that is to do when there are so many other demands on our time and energy. I don’t think it is a problem that can be solved with individual effort, though; I think we do need to make the system more humane and less stressful.

    Wishing you and your family all the best, Natalia. And everyone in situations like ours.

  • @ Holly Matthies
    “ I’m curious why you would have liked to know more about where I’m from and how long I’ve been here.”

    Because I was interested to know more about you. (Would you have preferred if I had said you could have stated you were from Minnesota?) You didn’t answer my question – Do you have British citizenship yet?

    You could add other details about your involvement in the Liberal Democrats, but I expect there is a word limit.

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