Wednesday 2 April 2008

That's no immigrant, that's my wife

So, dipping my toe into the ocean of conTROVersy about whether or not immigrants are "ruining the country," by which country I mean Great Britain, first means committing to this: I am an immigrant, i.e., someone who "comes to a country for the purpose of permanent residence," as the dictionary defines the word. Wow, it's cold in here.

It happens that I married a Briton and we decided to live here rather than there. It had little to do with how fantastic a nation this might be (and don't get me wrong, I love it), but more with certain logistics: My husband's very close to his family, mine likes to travel, New York is kind of over, and anyway, we can always move back to America. It was reverse-emigration for me; the sort of move one can make when one is white, middle-class, educated, and really could move anywhere. Why not Britain? I joked that as a descendant of Anglo-Saxons and Celts myself I was merely "going back to the Old Country." It didn't feel like a forever choice, or one borne of necessity the way, say, fleeing a ravaged country to seek asylum elsewhere is. (Though I might have felt that way for several weeks during November 2004.) It was, I acknowledge, a privileged choice. But still, here I am, making a life, paying my taxes (to two countries!) and trying to, you know, contribute.

At the same time, I tend to cling to my paranoia that the world hates Americans. There's a certain comfort in it, insofar as it means I don't feel the need to bother trying very hard to fit in. But then a "study" makes the front pages of the "papers" and I remember how much the rest of the world, with its fear of the newcomer, has in common with ol' border-fence-building America after all. And I feel compelled to wade in.

Now, I know you can't always get your news from newspapers, and you can't take at face value what "I'm Alright" Jack has to say about what's causing everything from long NHS waiting times to global warming, but people do buy those papers, and they buy into that thinking.

Today we had a new washing machine installed, and one of the workmen, seeing my husband's computer in the corner of our kitchen which he uses as his office, took the opportunity to share. "Och my son's doing computers at university. Of course the education's terrible these days. It's the immigrants who are ruining everything in this country."

My husband was too shocked to say anything (I was not home at the time), and the guy left soon after. When he reported the incident to me, I asked him, "Did you say 'My wife's an immigrant'?" My poor husband is kicking himself for not thinking fast enough. But who expects a person who comes into your home for the purpose of doing a service to come out with such hatred? How is that professional, or appropriate? How did racism become acceptable if you just call it "immigration"? I've been in the same position myself, shocked silent by some idiot racist remark at a random moment, only to think of the right zinger in hindsight. Looking at it cynically, my husband wouldn't have changed this man's thinking, at most he might have served as a reminder to think before speaking next time.

Are immigrants ruining the U.K.? The Guardian today looks at the aforementioned study, done by a House of Lords economic affairs committee, and reminds us that "No government, including a Conservative one, would want to reduce the number of skilled workers or students coming to Britain, as both are net earners for the country." At the other end of the spectrum, unskilled workers aren't exactly dead weights either.

But that doesn't take away the fears of the average tabloid reader. Coming from New York, where everyone knows the dirty little secret of the "modern form of slavery", the complaints sound depressingly familiar to me. Every third-generation "patriot" who pulls the alarm for border patrol has someone brown out back cutting their lawn, doing jobs that no one else wants.

And me? Here I find myself, in Britain, a taxpayer, a "skilled worker," an immigrant. And an American. Periodically I wonder if in addition to that crime, I am perceived as stealing someone's job; though in reality, I've been working "off-site" exclusively for American companies. And I've been treated with nothing but respect by everyone I've met. But I know this: a line has been drawn in the sand. The next racist remark about "the immigrants," I'm not having it. To plug my man, "Not this time."

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