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illustration by Ananya Rao-Middleton @ananyapaints

The S Word

On the psychological impact of a failing immigration system

The UK government announced a major shift in the country’s immigration policy in September of last year. International students graduating in the summer of 2021 onwards would now have the opportunity to apply to remain in the country for an additional two years beyond the completion of their degrees. A welcome development for many, the decision left many current and former international students feeling dejected. At present, international students in the UK, whether at the undergraduate or postgraduate level, have at most four months to look for work after completing their degrees before being forced to leave the country

and “work”
is elusive and strictly defined all at once.
a slow and timid walk down a long hallway
lined with door after door
bursting open at random
shouting SPONSORSHIP
with no rhyme or
reason.

confusion here is not happenstance
it is the goal. the fabric.

the floorboards rest on a bed of assumptions
and pop up every once in a while:
a signal
that something needs fixing.
You Are A Liability.
It Is Our Policy.
Do You Have The Right To Work?

**

I remember receiving an email from my university’s career’s centre in the autumn of 2018 and feeling over the moon. Barely two months into my time in the UK as a master’s student, I was thrilled to learn that the centre was hosting an information session on post-graduation employment for international students. I signed up immediately and began to indulge in a rare guilty pleasure: what would it be like to live and work as a journalist in London? Would I really be able to ‘make it out’? Would I make my mother proud? My thoughts continued to wander, safe within the boundaries of responsible expectation.

we are taught not to
dream
back
home.

I remember walking into that room on a rainy November afternoon and sensing the anticipation emanating off of every other attendee. The space filled quickly and, soon, bodies began to line up against the wall, packed tightly together, eager to hear from a man whose name and qualifications they did not know about whether there would be an opportunity for them to pursue a better life in this country. The room was undeniably racially skewed. It was those of us for whom return signaled, at best, a lack of opportunity, and, at worst, restricted freedoms and the fear of potential imprisonment, who had made the effort to attend this 1 PM Wednesday session, almost a year before any of us were due to finish our degrees.

I remember, as soon as the experts finished their presentation, hand after hand after hand shot up, eager to ask a question that would help them fill in a blind spot in their plans for a future that, for once, seemed possible. After all, we were just given the impression that finding employment in the UK as an international student would not be as difficult as any of us had initially thought. You “just” have to secure a job offer from an employer who is willing to sponsor you, have about 1,000 GBP in a bank account for at least three months, fill out the necessary paperwork three months ahead of your intended start date, and pay the application fees. Seemed simple enough to me, and I assume, everyone else in the room who had completed at least just as many requirements in applying for a UK student visa in their respective home countries. “Just” that and we could stay here?!

“just” is not just.
prejudice looks cute in comparison to
the norm:
more.

I remember thinking, briefly, that it all sounded too good to be true. My Egyptian ears were not used to hearing such a straightforward path towards potential resettlement in a Western country. “As someone who studied here and is applying from here,” noted the careers expert, “you are exempt from the Resident Labor Market Test. Your prospective employer should examine your application the same way they would examine a UK citizen’s.” What?! My mind swiftly began filling in all the spaces I’d responsibly left blank in my daydreams of what it would be like to live in the UK. I called my boyfriend back home the second the session ended, tripping over my words as I tried to explain to him the wonderful news.

“Th-the-they even told us to say ‘yes’ if potential employers ask us if we have the right to work here because, technically, we do! It’s just a matter of paperwork! Can you believe it?!”

He couldn’t. I couldn’t. Finally. Finally, I would have the opportunity to demonstrate my professional value based on merit, not passport. Finally, the chance to work freely and honestly on the issues I believe most strongly about, in a society that won’t put me behind bars for daring to do so. Finally, it looked like there was a place where I could think about setting up a life and maybe even starting a family, somewhere I could make my own. These were all ideas I’d abandoned years ago in Egypt. Soon enough, our phone conversation chartered into the ever-so-dangerous territory of wishful thinking. I had dialed him during my 15-minute walk to a local gym class, but I stood outside my destination, in the rain, gushing with him over the phone for more than an hour. I missed the class. I was soaked. It didn’t matter. We started making beautiful, naïve, plans about a future we’d been made to think was possible.

illustration by Ananya Rao-Middleton @ananyapaints

**

Fast-forward ten months. I’ve completed my dissertation and I’m confident it is Distinction-grade work. Entering month six of my dedicated job search, I’ve stopped counting how many applications I’ve sent out. The vignette above is nothing but a laughable memory. Through many a frustrated email exchange with human resources representatives, I’ve learned that I was right to be skeptical of this fanciful idea of equal opportunity.

We Are Not In A Position To Sponsor
It Is Our Policy
Unfortunatel-
I regret t-
Please Don’t Hesitate To Reach Back Out If You Arrange Your Right To Work In the UK!

we’d be
happy to
hear from
you.

best of luck!

We are an equal opportunities employer.

With every one of these emails, I search for new tactics to restrain the anger I felt towards the functionaries of a system that made no sense to me. In seeking to convince prospective employers of my professional competency, I try to strike a balance between confidence and caution. I don’t want to sound desperate. On the surface, I appear collected and unfazed. Below, anxious thoughts pulsate through me. Every word is calculated to convey a sense of assurance I haven’t known in months. I rephrase my answers to the infamous visa question again and again and again, skillfully skirting around the terrifying S word:

I have the right to work here
its “just” a matter of paperwork.
it is all my responsibility.
you have nothing to worry about.

It is called a Certificate of Sponsorship.

The second half of the word is barely audible. It need not be. The look on their faces says it all. There are those who, despite their job descriptions, have no idea what I’m talking about. With blank stares on their faces, they make it clear that the S word is enough to instill a quick and baseless sense of antipathy. Those that are already familiar with the system shuffle their feet and rearrange papers on their desk, unspoken indicators of finality.

**

I’ve been confronted with a series of striking contradictions in my search for employment in Brexit-era Britain. Narratives of a uniquely merit-based labor market clash sharply against employers who brazenly plaster NO VISA SPONSORSHIPS on vacancy announcements. Promises of an open system designed to favor the best and brightest bear no resemblance to the reality of its astronomical barriers to entry. Propagations of diversity and inclusion cannot be reconciled with the widespread ignorance afflicting swaths of HR employees who have not received appropriate training on how to navigate immigration policies. I’ve come to realize that these contradictions constitute the very fabric of contemporary UK immigration practices. As one scholar put it, “The absurdity of the UK migration system boggles the mind, but you are really made to feel like you don’t belong all the time.”

The impression of doors open
onto sky-high cement walls
obstructing light,
blinding views,
and crushing dreams.
“Growth” and culture hampered by
stubborn assertions
a taste of possibility
soured by misinformation and distrust,
bitter.

It is privilege
layered with privilege
facilitating the expense and the opportunity and the
right
to education
here.
It is “third world” privilege forced into battle
head to head
with old conquerors.
Barriers
layered with barriers
on freedom and movement.

I recognize that I am one of a miniscule few with an endless list of privileges that allow for my presence in the UK and the capacity to add M.A. at the end of my name. Still, this does nothing to cure an endemic level of social ignorance about the rights of international students in this country, what they have to offer, and why you should care. In a culture so dependent for depth and richness on those whom it subjugated abroad for centuries; this ignorance makes little sense to me.

To be clear, I am happy with the decision to extend future international students’ right to remain in the UK for two years after graduation. It is welcome recognition of the absurdity of the present system, which places students under a colossal amount of stress, especially towards the end of their programs, when they should be focused on submitting final coursework and securing the degrees for which they’ve sacrificed home-bound familiarity, money, (and much-missed sunshine). It offers temporary peace of mind for those of us for whom even the mere notion of return prompts fear

of losing a life so carefully curated
with a community of support
decorated with the ornaments of plotlines
we’d made wishing for a sport
free from the fear
of joining the stacks
thrown in prison for a prank,
a tweet, or a post
for protests unattended
for daring a free thought
rhyme with little reason
shoved squarely back into the margins,
it is deportation season.

**
**

I am home now, bringing my battle to remain in the UK to a premature end. I spent over eight months pleading my worth to a system that scarcely gave my wellbeing a second thought. I labored over word choices and fonts and cover letters and cold calls in an effort to present my skills and abilities in the best possible light, but it took me too long to recognize that competence was never the question being asked.

This is a country with a conscience currently at peace with sending back tens of thousands of bright and capable people to countries where the best they can hope for is underemployment and stifled self-expression.

I shy away from putting words to the worst of what awaits those who fight back.

After one too many panic attacks, I realized a life of insomnia and perpetual anxiety was not worth whatever “gift” it would be to live here. I may be weak in my capacity to withstand rejection, but the strongest I felt in a long time was the day I booked my flight home. A semblance of control over a process that had made my right to a secure and fulfilled existence seem inconsequential.

Competence was never the question.

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