British hospitality is a polite and reserved hospitality. Transactions at the off-licence or pub can be carried out with nods, a word or two and the right cash, thanks. If there is a British instinct, it is to get on with one’s own business and allow others to do the same. For an American living in London, like me, this pithy intercourse has been a deliverance. But the agency greeting newcomers to Britain behaves in just the opposite manner.
Like all expats, I was forced to yield my passport to the UK Border Agency in early January. It charged my bank account for administrative fees soon enough (and even charged me twice, just for the sake of thoroughness) but in the following months I have often found myself wondering: will I ever see my passport again? I have no problem with staying in Britain. I quite like it here. But it’s now June and seven months without the freedom to leave can destroy the charm of even the balmiest of paradises, which Britain is not.
There is an anti-social bent to UKBA. Firstly, it has a bizarre policy of zero communication until six months after applicants have filed for their visas. When you are cleared to make contact, things do not become less frustrating. The website is a disorganised quagmire, offering paralysingly bad information, while the telephone line is a series of monotonous recordings made by a person with the charisma of a goldfish.
Its email service is typical of its half-baked bureaucracy. I wrote asking why they were so keen to charge me twice for my visa. They waited two weeks to reply, stating that they “aim to respond to 95 per cent of complaints within 20 working days of the date [the original] correspondence was received”. By their estimation, their second reply to my first email would be sent one week later than their own calculations would suggest. Good maths, chaps.
At this rate, I may have to wave goodbye to my PhD offer from the United States this autumn as I won’t be able to travel, even back to my own country. But if I have to stay in London, what then? Most employers won’t give an immigrant without a passport or proper visa a second glance. This makes for many idle hands, all of which can still enjoy the country’s generous social welfare programmes. Hamstringing asylum seekers, visa applicants, and dependents who spend months waiting for their papers to be processed only puts further strain on an already over-encumbered economy.
In March, the Home Secretary Theresa May announced that UKBA will be dismantled and placed under the auspices of the Home Office. The decision seems like a reasonable one. But British immigration needs more than a shake-up: it needs to be more British.