Immigrant Song

An American academic in Britain ponders becoming a permanent expatriate

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

January 12, 2015

I am writing these words on the fifth anniversary of the date when my family and I left the United States for England, where I took a teaching-and-research position in the largest American-studies program in Europe. When we arrived, it was the cusp of winter break, when the lights of the universities dim until late January. The temporary housing available to us was cold, musty, and mildewed, so we bought a car and headed for Wales. There we hiked Cadair Idris, a craggy mountain, encountering blizzard conditions at its peak and making our way down cautiously in the company of other hikers we’d met along the way.

To mark the anniversary of our arrival, once again in the dark and damp of an English winter, I have just put in the mail a thick envelope full of the evidence and forms that may suffice to make us permanent residents of England. As I do so, debates about immigration continue to swirl in both America and Britain. Those debates are focused on the lowest-wage-earners and the economic effects of their presence, but the potential policy consequences will affect all immigrants, often to the disadvantage of universities seeking to attract the best faculty and students.

There is a global market for academic labor now, so much so that universities would be wise to provide leadership in the realm of both opinion and policy on immigration. Rating systems that various groups use to rank world universities count the proportion of faculty members with international origins. A campus that attracts researchers from a variety of countries is likely to be a superior institution, after all, and an internationally diverse teaching staff may expose students to new styles of thought and impart a better understanding of our highly variegated world.

In the 1990s, the scholarly reaction to "globalization" was initially euphoric, particularly in the discipline of economics. There was a suggestion of unlimited world markets, a conjecture that states were diminishing in importance and borders disappearing as they became increasingly meaningless before the flow of goods and technology.

Anyone who relocates abroad nowadays will vouchsafe that that is not true—most especially not for the people who, for reasons of love or employment, take up life in another land. My family’s continuing engagement with the bureaucracy in Britain may serve as a case in point. Right before coming and twice since arriving, we have had to pay considerable fees and fill out extensive forms for visas. Now we are in a fourth cycle with this application for "indefinite leave to remain."

Such permanent residence, if granted to us by the Home Office, will bring all of that to an end, requiring no further fees and rigmarole. We will not become citizens—permanent residents cannot vote—but we will accrue many advantages.

At present we have only the obligations—in particular, a steep income-tax bill that totaled more than $100,000 over the past five years for my wife and me. That bill is a function of high tax rates in this country and of my family’s dual incomes, and not of high salaries (we don’t have them). For now we do not qualify for benefits; if we faced unemployment, we could seek no public assistance. That will change if we are granted permanent residency. Most important, our children will qualify for the lower university-tuition rates charged to British students.

The forms required by the Home Office are seemingly endless, a sieve meant to strain the worthy from the rest. As proof that we truly reside here, we are asked for the departure and return dates of every trip we’ve taken outside the country. That’s a complex reconstruction over a five-year period, since I’ve traveled for scholarly conferences, talks, and research trips, both my wife and I have gone to the United States to see our parents, and our children have taken various school trips to France, Spain, and Germany.

Ticking the "no" boxes when asked about our involvement in war crimes, genocide, terrorism, or other misconduct was easy, but I was compelled to admit to a traffic offense in my first year here: "driving without due care and attention." I am lucky to have incurred nothing worse. Between madcap roundabouts, median lines with no bearing to the topography, driving on the left, and my own pronounced tendencies to absent-mindedness, I am fortunate to have had only one major traffic violation. Four years in the past, it should not weigh too negatively.

Beneath a paper clip, I tuck two pictures of each member of my family and add them to the envelope. The fluorescent lights of the photo booth blanched us to the point at which we all look pasty. Into the envelope go our American passports. Our fate now lies in the hands of the British state.

The last time we applied for visas, the U.K. immigration office delayed a decision for four months. We lost a house as a result; the bank refused a mortgage without knowing our visa status, so the sellers shifted to another bidder. Since then we have purchased another house. In the sales transaction we paid a large "stamp duty" (a term giving rise to colonial revolutionary instincts), meaning that we made a significant contribution to the British national treasury. Such are the kinds of contributions immigrants make that go unsung in facile popular complaints.

To be an immigrant is to be scorned by popular prejudice but valorized in historical myths. Societies wrap immigration in the romance of discovery and opportunity so as to imagine themselves inclusive and tolerant. The experience of immersion abroad does entail many delights but also an inescapable undercurrent of alienation, vulnerability, and insecurity, even for the most privileged. Our request for permanent residency might not be granted, after all. One ponders scenarios in which the family might have to buy steerage tickets, like peasants from Naples, Danzig, or Kiev in 1900, and head back out onto the waves of the world, seeking a living elsewhere.

In an "American Labor History" seminar I teach, my students and I discussed the fabled waves of immigration to the United States in its industrial heyday and then, on the last day of class, read a recent article from The New Yorker about fast-food workers’ organizing that profiles a Dominican single mother who works at a McDonald’s in New York. I imagine myself her: bare wages, fluent only in Spanish, my children born in America, my green card requiring renewal. The worries would run so deep.

Citizenship is one solution. If granted permanent residency, we could become dual citizens by applying for British naturalization. Increasing numbers of American expats all over the world are taking an even more radical step: repudiating their American citizenship altogether. Many are doing so because of changes in U.S. financial-reporting laws that make international financial institutions disinclined to accept American customers, and which create onerous filing burdens for Americans abroad. Those are the result of an inane new American law that ensnares ordinary professionals much more than the rich who are its intended aim. So much for globalism’s withering state.

I will neither adopt British citizenship nor renounce American citizenship. I am an American in Britain, teaching America to Britons. There is a symmetry to it—and so to our fifth-anniversary plans. As we await a decision on our immigrant status, we mark the memory of our arrival by heading to Wales once again, to lease a small, ancient farmhouse in the foothills of Cadair Idris.

Christopher Phelps is an associate professor of American studies at the University of Nottingham.