When the going gets tough, the tough get on with life. The weak point fingers and apportion blame. They’re especially fond of pointing those fingers at immigrants.
On the 17th, I marked my 17th anniversary as a full-time resident of Britain. In the past I have regularly forgotten that I’m not from here (see below) — but not lately. Lately I’ve been grumpy on behalf of all immigrants, everywhere. We don’t come here to live off the state. We come to get on with our lives, and that includes working, paying taxes, engaging with the local culture, and making contributions.
If you’ll indulge me, I’ve reprinted two columns written when I was on staff at The Scotsman, which speak to this topic.
I AM AN immigrant. There, I’ve said it.
Maybe now “Chairman Nick Griffin” will stop bombarding me with his pesky e-mails. The ones I never asked to receive, which go straight to my junk folder, unopened, because I know their contents would make me angry enough to hurl objects around the office. Never a good idea when it’s open plan. I might accidentally conk a real Brit on the noggin.
Griffin wants to offer 50,000 bribes if immigrants will only eff off back to their native lands. You might recall that in the 19th century, the American Colonisation Society proposed something similar when they tried to repatriate African Americans to Africa.
It’s not identical, I know. Those hundreds of thousands of souls were unwilling immigrants, sold into slavery. Yet there was Henry Clay, saying it was desirable to “drain them off” because Americans’ “unconquerable prejudice” meant they couldn’t be integrated into society if they were emancipated.
Did Clay and his mob forget that they, too, were immigrants just a generation or so back, and thus no more – or identically – entitled to be Americans? Ah, but they were white! Some fools think this accident of pigmentation is important. According to Griffin, being white is a “symptom of Britishness”.
I’m baffled by complaints that immigrants come to live on benefits at the expense of hard-working British taxpayers. To enter your country on a spouse visa I had to prove that my husband and I were solvent and of good character, and that I had work to do. I was sternly, repeatedly, reminded that I couldn’t apply for any form of state benefit for at least one year.
Where I’m from, there is no sense of entitlement about going on Welfare. But I’ve met many real British people who have no compunction about signing on. “I’ve earned it,” they say.
And that goes for the young unemployed lassie on the radio the other day, who was outraged that no-one recognised her contribution to the economy via all the taxes she paid on her cigarettes.
I’m American by birth and breeding. But I’m also keenly aware that I’m Austrian (Mom’s side) and Russian (Dad’s). Heck, maybe that makes me one of Gillian Duffy’s “flocking eastern Europeans”. I’m also a passport-carrying British citizen, not to mention a gay-friendly, colour-blind, atheist Jew.
I pay loads of tax, carry a mortgage and have savings invested in British banks. I pull my weight and probably cover expenses for a few benefit claimers, too.
America got over its prejudice, to an extent, but even so, before emigrating, I’d see scaremongering headlines: Run for the hills – the US may soon be home to more blacks than whites! English is in danger of being supplanted as the native tongue!
So? Who says white and English-speaking equals American? Or British, for that matter?
The US has problems aplenty, but in the main, my homeland’s more good than bad. That’s certainly due to the rich diversity of people living there, calling themselves Americans. Acre for acre Britain’s considerably smaller, but there’s plenty of room for a proportional level of diversity. Immigrants are no more stealing jobs and living off tax contributions than any of the hordes of economically disadvantaged people Griffin would have no trouble identifying as real Brits. Some are at it, some simply cannot get out from behind their disadvantaged circumstances. Surely it was ever thus?
I am an immigrant making a contribution. There’s nothing remarkable about this: there are thousands more just like me. I plan on staying put, too. Not least because I hope that gets up Nick Griffin’s nose.
A FEW weeks ago I responded with my usual misanthropy to a knock at the door. “Who is it,” I inquired.
“The gas man.”
“What do you want?”
Perhaps I should backtrack. He was the last guy I expected to hear from because I’d recently engaged in long, cuddly chats with the customer service team at my utilities provider. There’d even been one of those astonishingly thoughtful follow-up calls from the woman handling my case, warning me not to freak out about a bill that would shortly slip through my letterbox, which contained misinformation. “It’s all been sorted out,” she cooed, “so no need to lodge another complaint with the company.”
Anyway, along with bank details, I had provided a meter reading, necessitating two trips up and down the ladder to get it exactly right.
Back to the story in progress, then. It was one of those lovely days when harmony rules. The heat and hot water were both working perfectly. All light bulbs were fully operational. A peaceful little kingdom. The door went. “What do you want?” I asked the gas man. He wasn’t pleased.
“What are you, foreign?” he blasted back.
“I’m not foreign! What are you on about?”
“I think you’re foreign. You must be if you don’t know the gas man comes to read the meters.”
“I don’t need my meters read. I read them the other day and sent in my number.”
“You must be foreign.”
“I’m not!” (How dare he?)
“Where were you born?”
If he could have seen my face through two inches of wood, he’d have seen a jaw drop. I am foreign, come to think of it.
I’d gone straight into “Festival Mode”. It happens every August when freshly minted cabbies – the only ones who aren’t sick to death of dragging me around this town at all hours – ask: “How are you enjoying Edinburgh?” With utmost speed I inform them that I’ve lived here lo these many years. I pay taxes, carry the passport.
Gas Man seemed to accuse: you don’t belong here! That’s what raised my hackles, making me forget that my granny’s granny’s gran didn’t call Scotland home.
Ever since, I’ve felt an edgy unease perusing the increasingly frequent, increasingly shrill headlines. “Incoming,” they shout, like medics off M*A*S*H, alerting Britain to the danger we foreigners pose to the status quo. England’s not for the English anymore, and they’ll soon be teaching Polish in Scotland’s schools. As if that’s a bad thing.
Even my native country evinces a deliberate unwillingness to acknowledge that the Founding Fathers came over on a boat, bar the lip service paid each Thanksgiving.
I’m not equipped to debate the far-reaching consequences of an open border. I operate on instinct and my innate sense of logic and justice, rather than a deep familiarity with statistics and their political ramifications. Plus, coming from a nation almost entirely comprised of immigrants – my family among them – I find this debate somewhat baffling, anyway. (Though I do accept that America has a lot more room for everyone to spread out in and more resources to exploit.)
Yet I also know that when I meet someone from elsewhere, I’m curious, not anxious. What’s it like where you’re from? How’s the food? Who are your artists? May I hear your language? How tedious it would be if we were forced to inhabit single-ethnic enclaves. We’d never learn anything.