An alien in England: of pink cards, ninety-page forms and thousands of pounds.

This article, and issue, is getting a lot of comment, as well it should. However, the rather breathless naivety with which a fair number of my British friends have responded to this has made me realise some things that British people may not know about life as a foreigner in this country.

I am a resident alien. I have “indefinite leave to remain” (a phrase designed to weed out non-native speakers of British English at the first hurdle – try parsing that for your average eight year old). I have been here since 2008. A few notes about the experience (and bear in mind, that I am a highly educated white person from a first world country, who speaks English pretty much perfectly, who came here at the invitation of a university to take up a job – I am by far the most desirable of immigrants (by the standards of those who measure such things) and the most privileged, and my treatment was almost certainly the best of all possible treatments in the system).

1. I was deported on arrival. This is not uncommon. There was an error in the application for my work permit (not my error) and as a result, one Janet, working the border at Manchester International Airport, determined I was not legally entitled to enter the country. I spent a few hours sitting in the “immigration penalty box”, the glass-walled area to one side of the border for people to gawk at, before being escorted to collect my luggage, fingerprinted, and left alone in a locked room. I was not allowed to speak to Martin (his parents are British, and he has a British passport), and was told I would be flown back to Qatar. After a few hours, Janet went off shift, and I managed to persuade Hardeep, who replaced her, that I could be allowed to enter the country for twenty-four hours to arrange a flight to Canada, rather than Qatar, which would simply deny me entry. They confiscated my passport, and I was allowed to go to Preston, find Martin, book a flight to Canada and have a delightful conversation with my new boss and HR department to explain what had gone wrong. I called the immigration office at Manchester and gave them the details of my flight, two days hence (this was Friday, and the first flight I could get was on Monday), as I had been instructed to.

The next morning, at six am, the police arrived at the guest house we were staying at, and demanded to see me: according to them I had now been in the country more than my allowed twenty-four hours and was to be arrested. I showed them the details of my flight, and was allowed to call the Manchester Airport immigration centre, where, miracle of miracles, I was able to speak to Hardeep, and she managed to persuade the police that all was well, and after several conversations and tense waiting, they stood down. The guest house (where Martin ended up staying for another week on his own) were politely, and Britishly furious and resentful, and never forgave us. Breakfast was served with a side of spite and bile thenceforth.

On Monday I went to Manchester Airport for my flight (via the USA, because it was the first affordable flight I could get). I had no passport, and did as instructed, tried to check in and told the official that my passport was being held for me. Unfortunately, before checking in, I had to pass an American screening process, which I couldn’t do without a passport, and the American official was not interested in any explanation, and was loudly vocal in expressing this. I had to go to customer service, who called security, who showed up with guns, uniforms and my passport. Two of them escorted me to the American screening desk, where my recent UAE residence permit and assorted regional stamps caused a massive amount of interest and shouting and demands to know how long I had been in Saudi and what I had been doing there (I had not been to Saudi) – I am reasonably sure none of the Americans read Arabic, and they resisted all efforts on the part of anyone, me included, to explain. Finally, the Americans agreed that I could be allowed to proceed. Throughout this process, I was not allowed to touch my passport, I was made to stand to one side while an armed security guard dealt with the paperwork. Security stayed with me throughout the wait in the departure lounge, and only gave me my passport back at the door of the plane, my having been sufficiently publicly humiliated for now that they could let me go to the relatively humane treatment of USAir (insert hollow laugh here).

Once in Canada (after having to go through US border control, something which I will never do again, if I have any say in the matter), I had to spend ten days waiting for a new entry clearance (which went fairly smoothly – and thanks so much to the lovely invisible friends who let me squat in their basement), and then flew back to Manchester. Janet was not working the border when I arrived (I looked for her every time I came home through Manchester, and once had her as my official, but she betrayed no acknowledgement of me, or of what had happened), and after a tense few minutes my explanation was accepted, and I was allowed in, this time WITH my passport. Until that passport expired, I had to explain in great detail every single time I came in to the country why I had been denied entry, and was eyed suspiciously by all and sundry.

2. ID cards (residence permits) were introduced for all foreign residents in 2008. Before that, your residence was an insert into your passport, now it is a pink biometric ID card. In 2010, my passport expired, and I had to get an ID card to replace the entry clearance in my old passport. This cost several hundred pounds, and required me to go to the visa office in Liverpool for a day. I filled in my forms, made my appointment, paid my fee, paid the additional fee for faster service (see next part), and headed to Liverpool. About the fees, every single engagement with the home office comes at a cost, and there are always three tiers of cost. First is the basic service, usually postal, which requires you to send off all of your identifying documents to the abyss of a sorting centre somewhere in the UK, and wait for up to six weeks (sometimes forever) for your papers to be returned to you, duly stamped and processed, and one hopes, not denied (if they are, there is no appeal, no refunds and no explanation). Next is the premium service, which requires you to go to a centre somewhere and show your documents to an official, who checks them and returns them to you. You get your response within five days and get to keep your ID. Finally there is the super-premium (oligarchs and sheikhs) service, which is 24 hours, at your convenience, and probably involves gold-rimmed tea sets and sexual favours (at least, it should, for that price).

Appointment is a vague term. In this case it means come at that time and we’ll allow you to join the queue around then, if there’s space in the holding area. The place was packed, everyone clutching their papers, no food or drink is permitted, and the chairs are bolted to the floor. There is a ticketing system, and numbers are called, for various things. You get called to pay, then to confirm payment, then to have your papers looked at, then to be fingerprinted, then to have your iris scanned, then to be photographed, and then, finally, to be told you are done.It took most of a day, and there were people still there who had been there when I came, and seemed to have made no progress in those hours. My pink ID card arrived a week later.

3. Indefinite leave to remain. My work permit was valid for five years. At the end of that time, I could leave the country, have my employer apply for a new work permit (now called a tier 2 visa) or apply for indefinite leave to remain. Work permits are limited to one employer (ie, I couldn’t quit my job and go elsewhere in the UK – the work permit was effectively UCLan’s, not mine), and are tentative, so I opted for indefinite leave to remain. This is not simple. First, you have to pass the “Life in the UK” test. This costs money (of course) and you have to pay for the books (there is a good second hand trade in these), and is not a simple test. The test was interesting, and I learned a lot about the UK while studying for it. It has changed since, but when I took it, it included a lot of information about legal rights and responsibilities and how civil society works, and I doubt I have a British friend who could pass it. The test itself happens in a testing centre in a city (in my case Manchester), and you have to wait, then do the test on an ancient computer. You then have to sit until EVERYONE is done the test, then you have to wait again while each person is called in to hear their results, and escorted out through a separate door. It takes hours, mostly pointless, the kind of process that seems to have been designed primarily to remind the participants that they are at the mercy of mindless authority. I passed the test, and got a piece of A4 printer paper confirming that.

Then I had to prove I speak English. Yes. Really. My university degrees were from Canada and South Africa, both officially multi-lingual countries, so a degree from one of them does not count as evidence of English. No amount of discussion was allowed: according to them, I could have written my masters in Afrikaans (or Xhosa, or Zulu, or Sesotho, or…) at Rhodes University (bastion of South African Englishness that it still is, notwithstanding), or done my Bachelors in French (in far western Canada, where Mandarin and Punjabi are more widely spoken than French). The fact that I work and teach at a British university was irrelevant. Finally, they accepted my PGCertHE from Middlesex, as evidence of my speaking good enough English to stay. I was slightly disappointed, I’d kind of like to do the IELTS test, but it was expensive, and couldn’t be booked in time.

Yes, time. You have ninety days to apply for and receive indefinite leave to remain. You can only apply ninety days or fewer before the expiry of your work permit, and must have received indefinite leave to remain before your permit expires, or be deported.

The form is ninety four pages long. The guidance on completing the form is the same length, and has multiple references to things on websites. It took a week, at least, to complete. Among the things I needed were a detailed list of every single time I had left the country in time since I arrived, and formal confirmation from my employer that I was either on university business or had booked annual leave, for every visit. I also had to have the university write something confirming that they would continue to employ me after I had received indefinite leave to remain. The university’s HR department pretty much refused to do this, despite my having evidence of leave and and university-booked trips for every single one. I had to remind my dean that if they didn’t do the letters I would have to leave the country, and someone else would have to do my marking, which finally unstuck something and I got my letters. I had to have rent receipts for the full time I was in the UK, bank and tax statements, police clearances, vaccinations (not really, but I did need the NHS to confirm I don’t have TB) and probably dental records as well. It was a pile fourteen centimetres high of every single document I had ever received.

Exactly ninety days before my permit expired, I went online to make the appointment. No availability for six months.

Cue quiet hysterical screaming.

Call the call centre.

Keep trying, we release new appointments all the time.

A week of trying. Nothing.

Go online to the many many UKVI help forums, where I find out that new appointments are released on the system at midnight on Thursdays.

Finally, success, I have an appointment in Belfast two days before my permit expires. Belfast.

I pay the fees, this time it is thousands of pounds, and the additional fee for one-week premium service.

I keep checking the site, and eventually manage to switch to an appointment in Sheffield, which is cheaper and easier to get to. All appointments are at 9am, so we have to spend the night in Sheffield.

At 8:45am I arrive at the place in Sheffield, a non-descript government office, my towering pile of papers clutched in my hands (actually in a document box) and join dozens of other people waiting outside in Sheffield, in February. At 9am we are allowed in, through security, and we sit and silently judge each other’s piles of documents, and wait.

Three rounds of take a number here and wait to be called to check your payment receipts, check your appointment details, and I get to sit down in front of an official who picks up my ninety four page form, reads the first page, flicks to the end, reads the last page, glances at my box of papers, picks up my passport and looks at the picture, stamps my form and says “alright”.

Umm, what?

Do I take another number?

“No, that’s fine, we’ll send your confirmation in the post”

Really? I don’t need to do anything else?

Visibly annoyed now: “no, that’s fine, it’s all sorted, you’ll get your confirmation of indefinite leave to remain in the post”.

And that was it. Thousands of pounds, weeks of form filling and document collecting, nights of staying up to get an appointment, and she doesn’t even READ THE FRIGGING FORM, much less look at anything else.

I got my replacement pink ID card in the post, as she promised. I’m supposed to carry it with me at all times. I don’t.