In the past year or so it has come to my attention just how little non-immigrants know about what being an immigrant is like. This is a serious problem, and its repercussions are becoming more clear as the world, fuelled by events like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, becomes more blatant in its anti-immigration sentiments.
But knowledge is power, and I want to do what I can to give my non-immigrant brethren a little insight into the immigrant life. Here are ten things about being an immigrant that I, and other immigrants, have found that non-immigrants don’t usually know.
1. Immigrants are isolated from the main culture
Every country has its own culture, and when you’re not originally from the country in which you reside, you’re isolated from that country’s culture.
I happen to be from a country that is culturally similar to the United Kingdom, and even I experience some isolation. For example, my friends will sometimes mention a typical British childhood experience, or a TV show from several decades ago, and it will always need to be explained to me. This might seem small, especially considering how other immigrants come from countries more different to the UK than mine, but it’s isolation nonetheless, and it is one thing that will always be a point of difference between me and most of the people with whom I spend my time.
2. Learning another language is hard
One of the main gripes I hear against immigrants is that we apparently make no effort to learn the language of our adopted country. People who say this have clearly never tried to learn a second language before, because if they had, they would be far more forgiving.
It is exceptionally difficult to learn another language. It can take years to become fluent, and even fluent speakers will never have the native language intuition we all rely on when communicating in our native tongues. Immigrants who don’t speak the language of their adopted country not only need to learn it, but they need to learn it well enough to do everyday tasks that even native speakers struggle with, such as enrolling their children into school, or explaining potentially complex symptoms to doctors. Can you even imagine trying to do these tasks in a non-native language?
3. Finding work or buying a house is nearly impossible without in-country connections
Think back to the last time you bought a house or got a new job. Did somebody you know recommend you? Did a friend vouch for the soundness of your character? Did an HR department call a previous boss or a family friend for a reference? If you can answer ‘yes’ to any of those questions, you are one step ahead of most immigrants.
When you are an immigrant fresh off the aeroplane, the chances of you knowing many people in your adopted country are next to none. Since a lot of these major changes and investments in life require the support of people who know us, they present a major problem for immigrants.
4. Immigrant children are prime targets for schoolyard bullying
When you were in school, were you ‘different’ in any way? As a resident fat girl who was somewhat prone to anxiety-induced temper tantrums, I definitely was, and school was a miserable experience for me as a result.
But at least I didn’t have the additional burdens of having different coloured skin, sounding different, eating different food for lunch, and/or having different home customs, which many immigrant children have.
In a world that continues to encourage children to notice and pick on anybody who is different, immigrant children are pretty much guaranteed a world of hurt. This is one certainty that needs to be stopped.
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5. Anti-immigration sentiment is EVERYWHERE
You would have to be living under the most soundproofed rock in existence not to have heard the anti-immigration sentiment being paraded on news channels and social media feeds. However, I think the more telling anti-immigration sentiment comes from microaggressions. I have had to endure countless people asking if my ancestors are convicts, or imitating my accent with all the subtlety and refinement of the Aussie stereotypes on The Simpsons.
Worst of all is having people ask me why I (a white, middle-class, native English speaker) have to deal with visa restrictions and the like, ‘while all of these other migrants can live here with no trouble’. I am sure this is said to me in a show of solidarity, but all I end up feeling is annoyed at these people’s prejudice and lack of understanding.
6. Visas are difficult to acquire
I honestly believe non-immigrants think governments give visas to anybody who wants them, and that these visas give their holders the same rights and privileges as that country’s citizens. I wish.
The truth, here in the UK at least, is that only people who meet certain specific circumstances are eligible to apply for visas, and those specifications change (ie. become more exclusionary) every year. In the years I have lived here, I’ve seen minimum salary requirements for work and spousal visas go up by thousands of pounds. I have seen highly skilled migrant visas being stopped altogether. I have seen student visas take on year limits. So if you believe it’s easy to get a visa, not only are you wrong, but you’re also becoming more wrong as time goes on.
7. Becoming an immigrant involves going through lots of red tape
If you’re someone who enjoys filling out forms, visa applications might have you thinking twice. Every time I have applied for a new visa, I have had to fill out a 70-page form (I truly wish I was joking), get biometrics done, gather up a dozen or so supporting documents, and make sure I have no travel plans for a good long while because the Home Office likes to hold onto passports for as long as possible. And this is just what it is like for textbook visa-dependent immigrants like me. Refugees and asylum seekers have to go through so many long, arduous processes that it literally takes years to process them.
8. Being an immigrant is expensive
Never has my wallet been in more pain than just after posting a visa application. It is common for a 2- or 3- year UK visa to cost over £1000. On top of this, there are other charges like NHS surcharges, priority fees, biometric fees, and other costs you might endure to obtain your supporting documents. It is clear from this that the UK only really wants the wealthy to immigrate here.
9. An immigrant’s future is uncertain
Nobody’s future is certain, but immigrants face extra uncertainties due to the hazy half-and-half status we hold between our home and adopted countries. For example, if we work primarily in our adopted country, are we entitled to pensions in our home country? If our situations suddenly change and our visa criteria is no longer being met, will we have time to rectify this, or will we be deported straight away?
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And what if we experience a tragedy for which non-immigrants would normally receive support? Will we receive such support as well? And if not, will our home country provide it? Part of being an immigrant is learning to live with these uncertainties.
10. Every immigrant experience is different
I have met hundreds, if not thousands, of immigrants, and I can say with absolute certainty that no two immigrants have experienced being an immigrant in the same way. This is even true within my own family. My father was born into a British settlement in Chile, and he immigrated to Australia as a teenager. He tells me that, in a way, he feels like he was born an immigrant. My mother lived in France for four years before coming to live in England with the rest of us. My brothers both only needed one visa before they could become British citizens. One brother experienced several years of high school as one of only two immigrants in his class. All five of us are undoubtedly immigrants with immigrant experiences, but all of our experiences are different.
Immigrants make up a substantial percentage of the population, and we are an important part of the countries in which we reside. I am very proud of the fact that I’m an immigrant, and I hope to continue to be one for a good long while yet.
[Feature Image: A person with long dark purple hair. They are wearing a blue and black striped shirt. Behind them is a white background. Source: Jose Hernandez]