Since we’re on the subject of video games, today I’m going to do a little bit about a game called Papers, Please, created by Lucas Pope. In this game, you play a border agent in a fictional country who is tasked with inspecting people’s documentation and either admitting them or denying them. Of course you also have your own family to feed and shelter, but what happens when someone comes by who doesn’t have the right paperwork? Do you admit them when they tell you they’re just trying to see their son? Or their spouse? What about if they look female (to you) and their passport says they’re male?
The reason I bring this game up is because it’s supposed to be historical, but in actuality the events of Papers, Please are unfolding right now for real people. Click here to view the game’s trailer and/or to buy the game, and here to see the Zero Punctuation game review.
Throughout this post, you’re going to see screen caps from Papers, Please, but that is not what I’m going to talk about. This post is about a real-life issue: The UK is forcibly separating families.
For this post, I conducted an interview with an American citizen, Alex, and a UK citizen, Sam. They’re married, but they aren’t living together yet. Instead they are going through the arduous and soul-sucking process of applying to live together as citizens in the UK. To protect their identities, their names were changed, and all identifying information has been altered or omitted.
Interspersed throughout the interview transcript, you will find excerpts from some websites that detail the immigration issues more fully. I warn you that this blog’s “Divided Family of the Week” posts will tear your heart to pieces.
Because of the sheer volume of information I’m trying to include, I have divided this post into two parts. Both parts will be long, but I urge you to read them in their entirety. The things I’ve learned in just a few days… It’s cruel and unusual, and we have to try to stop it. This is America’s problem as much as anyone else’s. It’s American citizens (as well as citizens from many other countries) who are being forced to live apart from their spouses and families. So please read, and share! I have never asked this of you before, readers, but please share this post. Get the word out there.
Q: How long have you and Sam been together as a couple?
ALEX: Since March of 2010, so almost six years.
Q: Can you tell me about when you started the process of moving to the UK, with the aim to become permanent residents? [Note: Sam was born in the UK, and is a citizen.]
ALEX: Initially we hadn’t considered moving to the UK, because I thought it would be best for us to be in the US, in terms of my career. But as we learned more about what it would take to be a [JOB TITLE] here, plus the wait times to get a US spousal visa (more than one year we would have to be apart), we started to consider the UK again. Turns out it makes much more sense, as it’s a more straightforward path to [CAREER] for me. On the surface, it looked as if the visa process is easier, as the wait times are shorter. So we decided to do that.
For several months, we scraped together savings and spent as little money as possible for what we thought was the financial requirement: a savings of £16,000 ($22,700). Turns out, that was not the case. The requirement was upwards of £60,000 ($90,000) in savings, just to live with my family. And we had to hold that absurd amount for six months in a bank account, untouched. We’re preparing our application, which already exceeds 50 pages in a 3-ring binder, and it still isn’t enough proof that we’re not in a sham marriage, or lying to the border authorities in some other way. And, in what felt like a slap to the face, we also read that we shouldn’t burden the UKBA (UK Border Agency) with “too much evidence,” lest they tire of hearing about our situation and reject us.
Immigration laws leave an estimated 33,000 people unable to remain with spouses in Britain as they do not earn enough to satisfy visa requirement.
Q: My next question was in this vein. I wanted to ask you to list the various obstacles you encountered since beginning the process. Is there anything you’d like to add, since you already began the list?
ALEX: Yes. This is a significant financial and emotional burden. We’re stuck between the xenophobic immigration practices of two different xenophobic countries. That means that Sam regularly has to leave me here alone to fulfill his/her US visa requirements, and it’s never a given that they’ll let her/him back in at the border.
Obviously the money is a huge thing. We could be spending that money, right now, setting up a life in a country we both love. But what they don’t see is the huge emotional toll. It’s not right to be separated as newlyweds, particularly not for arbitrary reasons and indeterminate amounts of time. I have PTSD. This leads me to have terrifying panic attacks in my sleep. I’m lucky to have someone like Sam, who’s willing to do whatever it takes, in the middle of the night, to calm me down and allow me to sleep peacefully. When s/he’s not here, I have to face it alone.
The rules were introduced on 9 July 2012, and every year dozens of couples who have been separated from their partners and children gather outside the Home Office to protest a law which means around 47% of Britons do not earn enough to fall in love with a foreigner.
There’s also our education and careers. We’re both ambitious people. I have a clinical Masters degree, and I’d like to progress to a doctorate. It’s an intensely competitive and high-paying field, and I can’t wait to actually begin working in it. Sam wants to write professionally, and to support us by working better than minimum wage jobs while I’m in school. But we can’t start any of that right now. We have to wait, often separately, wasting time in pointless and underpaid jobs even when we have the money and academic drive to not do that.
The UKBA does not give you any specific guidance as to what documents to provide in order to prove that A) you have a “genuine and subsisting relationship,” B) you intend to live together as a couple in the UK, and C) the money you have is from a legit source. From the experiences of other couples we’ve read about, they will reject without asking for clarification, leading you to go down a (highly expensive) months or years-long appeals process. So in this process of gathering information that varies from seemingly pointless (utility bills) to highly violating and personal (love letters, emails, Facebook chats, a year of bank statements of the person who gave you a monetary gift), you start to think of yourself as a criminal. You start to have thoughts like, “Wow, we didn’t join our finances before marriage. I guess that’s a legit reason for them to reject us.” I do this hundreds of times every day. “Oh no, I didn’t save every scrap of paper Sam ever wrote to me on. I guess I don’t deserve to live with him/her. How stupid of me not to have set up this relationship for success.” Or if, Heaven forbid, I threw out bills that were several years old that had both our names on them. “How could I do that? Why am I trying to defraud the UK?”
You’re not allowed to be human in this process. You have to be a relationship-tracking automaton, and a very wealthy one at that. And even then, they might reject you, as in the case of a couple being rejected for literally knowing the UK’s immigration laws and citing them in their application.
Almost every day, we remind each other that we’re in the best possible position (after the “investor tier” which can casually drop £1 million into the UK economy and be granted the privilege of staying). I speak English and am UK-educated. We’re not in a same-sex relationship. I’m not from a politically inconvenient country. I can afford a lawyer, and this application (which costs around $10,000, in addition to the savings requirement). There are infinite reasons people can fall through those cracks, and can thus be denied the right to family life. That’s an explicit right, by the way, under both UK and EU law. But the reassurance that we’re top-shelf applicants, perhaps, doesn’t keep us together. It doesn’t keep Sam here to help me sleep and to play with our dog and to just enjoy our marriage. And it certainly doesn’t get me any closer to starting my second Masters course, which I may miss because of their processing times, which I hear are backlogged by about 6 months.
Immigration rules in the UK in force from 9th July 2012 make a mockery of family values and violate the sanctity of marriage in causing the separation of families, keeping our citizens in exile and forcing British children unnecessarily into a single-parent upbringing.
Q: Sam, I know that you are a UK citizen. You were born and raised in the UK, correct? Was there ever a dramatic change in your feelings about being a UK citizen in your life? Either a negative or positive change, or have your feelings about your country always been the same?
SAM: I was born and raised here [in the UK], and spent almost my entire life so far here. There has not been a dramatic change in my feelings about the UK, but rather a gradual one. I was generally ambivalent about it as a child and teenager, but was always involved politically and took an interest in my community in a lot of ways. It was always my home and while I knew it had problems, I felt like it was worth trying to make better. Over the course of the last few years, however, since I’ve been involved with Alex and spending more time in other countries, I increasingly no longer feel secure or welcome in the UK. I get the sense that having a partner from another country is some kind of violation, that I’m being punished for loving someone not from here.
Q: Let’s expand on that. Alex has already talked about how this process has affected her/his life and his/her emotional well-being. Can you talk about how you’ve been feeling since the process started?
SAM: Anxious. Partly out of a constant sense of uncertainty over our future that is just part of the process, partly out of concern for Alex, who struggles with some health problems that make it hard for her/him on his/her own. Also frustrated by the way that our lives, especially careers and family life, have been put entirely on hold during this time. We’re recently married, yet have been totally unable to really start our lives together or enjoy our relationship because we’re forced to be apart. The process is deeply lonely, because we’re both always pulled apart and never allowed to know if we’ll be able to see one another again for months, or potentially even years.
Q: I don’t want to pour salt on any wounds, but what will happen if the UK rejects you as a couple?
SAM: I don’t know. It’s impossible to know or plan for. We might be able to take a different path, but there’s no guarantee of anything.
[End of Part 1]
Obviously what’s happening is tragic, so I’m going to answer the question that might be on your mind: What can you do to help? Glad you asked. Click the links below. Donate your time, resources, money. Whatever you have. Help to stop the UK from treating people like trash.
The conclusion to this interview will be posted early next week. Until then, I once again urge you to share this post. Let’s start getting the word out there.