In December, on my way back to France from Malaysia, I stopped in Paris to get a visitor’s visa at the Canadian Embassy. Twelve years ago, I didn’t need a visa to enter Canada on a Malaysian passport, but all that changed after September 11th, because Malaysia is a Muslim country. This I found out the hard way, landing in Toronto one afternoon en route to London from Rochester in 2003, being told that I could not leave the Immigration area because I had no transit visa.
“But I don’t want to be in Canada,” I pleaded. “All I want to do is catch my flight to London.”
“Yes,” agreed the official. “But that’s what a transit visa is. Without it you’re not supposed to be here. You’re not supposed to be in Canada.”
“But I am in Canada,” I said. “I’m already here. And I want to go to London.”
Finally the official sighed and leaned back. He looked at me and smiled and shook his head. “Listen,” he said. “I tell you what. You are Indian, I am Indian. We Indians must help each other. So I will give you a special document. It is called an Allowed To Leave. But basically you are being expelled from Canada. Next time you must get a visa. Okay?”
I grabbed the document and ran to catch my flight.
I hadn’t needed to return to Canada until this year. This time I knew I needed a visa, and I needed it quickly. According to the embassy’s website and to the institution organising my trip to Canada, applying in person was much more efficient. The processing time for online applications was 54 days when I checked; in person, the visa could be granted “more quickly,” only, of course, no one really knew exactly how much more quickly. My husband and I had gathered up the materials I needed during my last few days in Malaysia, scrambling to fill up the forms and print out photographs while saying goodbye to relatives and friends, eating half a dozen farewell meals, buying gifts to bring back to France, and packing my suitcase. We had gone over the various checklists on the embassy website and made sure we had everything on those lists; we were cautiously hopeful — cautious because we had both dealt extensively with immigration red tape in multiple countries — that since our flight landed in Paris before eight o’clock in the morning, we’d still be able to catch our 1PM train to Limoges after going to the embassy.
But of course the embassy had its own secret checklist, visible only inside the waiting room and different in tiny but crucial ways from the various checklists on the website. Of course this secret checklist specified photocopies of my passport and French residence permit in addition to the originals I’d brought. Of course there was no waiting room for family members inside the embassy, so that my husband and my two-year-old daughter were forced to pace the street outside the embassy with all our suitcases in Paris in December. Of course the woman at the counter — even when I told her that I had just got off a fifteen-hour-flight, that my husband and toddler were waiting outside in the cold, and that I lived three hours away by train — refused to make the photocopies for me. “No,” she kept repeating, “your application is incomplete and therefore I cannot accept it.”
We stayed the night in Paris, paying for a hotel room not too far from the embassy, spending our evening retaking the required photographs (I won’t get into why they needed to be redone) and trying to make acceptable photocopies of my documents. We found that on every photocopier we tried, if we lightened the photograph enough so that my features were actually visible, the text became illegible; if we made a clear photocopy of the text, my face was just a black blotch. “They do this on purpose,” I joked. “The photocopy machine manufacturers are in cahoots with the embassies to keep dark-skinned people out.” But it was a bitter joke, and for once I, who laugh at conspiracy theories wherever I find them, wished this were a real conspiracy I could expose. How much simpler to be able to say: Look, you can’t actually make clear copies of dark faces with these machines! than to have to explain the many ways in which modern immigration laws do, in fact, discriminate against the dark, the poor, the uneducated, the unwashed, the bearded, the holders of passports from unfavourable countries, the wretched refuse of every teeming shore.
In the morning, I went again to the embassy, and the same lady accepted my revised application and told me to go upstairs and wait for my number to be called. Upstairs, in a room furnished with state-of-the-art photocopiers (yes) and a large screen flashing tantalising tidbits about Canada and its immigration procedures, I waited and watched the usual immigration morality plays unfold before me. The people who, having recognised countrymen in the waiting room, huddled together in pairs and threes for solidarity, discussing strategies and odds like betters at a horse race. The trembling old folks whose French and English were equally broken and who must therefore be subjected to shouted questions (because everyone knows that if you can barely understand a language, you’ll be able to understand more of it when it’s shouted): BUT WHY DO YOU WANT TO GO TO CANADA? WHO IS PAYING FOR YOUR TICKET? YOUR BANK STATEMENT SHOWS ONLY A LITTLE MONEY! NOT ENOUGH MONEY! The youths in ironed shirts and shiny shoes who trotted up to the window bright-eyed and ready to impress, only to walk away from it like caricatures of despair: heads hanging, shoulders slumped. The official at the window who, because of the particular placement of the hole in the window through which one was supposed to speak, had to raise her chin and so look down her nose at every applicant. The way this official held the applications between her thumb and index finger, as though they were faintly disgusting objects left on her desk by mistake.
I got my visa that same day. “Here is your visa!” the lady said to me in French, and looking at her expression I had the distinct feeling that I was expected to express surprise and gratitude and delight, none of which I expressed in front of her. Laminated onto a page of my passport, the visa bore no photograph, despite the rejection of my original photos, the many guidelines for the taking of suitable photos, and the full wall of examples — suitable and unsuitable — inside the waiting room of the embassy. But when you finally, after one of these epic application processes, hold that coveted visa in your hand, such absurdities become laughing matters. “Ha ha!” you say, your voice only a little brittle. “They don’t actually use the photos!” Your relief is immense, even if you only needed the visa for a relatively unimportant trip, even if your getting or not getting the visa was never a matter of life and death or livelihood. Somehow, waiting in those hushed, carpeted rooms, your quest takes on an aura of desperation. You are at the mercy of a system completely beyond your control, and what relief you feel when it favours you, even when you are smart and educated and comfortable enough in your own life to make fun of that system behind its back.
In the last five years, I’ve read three novels in which immigration is a central subject: Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, Chris Cleave’s The Other Hand (published as Little Bee in the U.S.), and Lloyd Jones’s Hand Me Down World. All three are about people not lucky enough to be able to laugh at the system that decides where and how and when they will move in this world. All three are remarkable novels, full of the kind of social commentary that has stayed with me and comes back to haunt me — in exact sentences, in images I feel I’ve seen on a large screen — whenever I’m forced to deal once again with the System. I call it the System, because even though I am talking about the diverse immigration laws of multiple first-world countries, it is really one global system: the System that makes sure They don’t take (too much of) what belongs to Us. We’re not supposed to think too deeply about why They have so little and We have so much (because how can that have anything to do with Us? How can it be Our fault?), or about why Their lives would be so much better and Their wages so much higher (or so they think) here, within Our borders. We can let some of Them in — but only a small, predetermined number — because They need the money, but god forbid that They — as Indonesian maids in Malaysia did and do — start demanding more rights or more wages. Don’t They know they were lucky enough to be allowed in in the first place?
You may call me naïve; you may point out (perhaps even correctly) that immigration laws are necessary in the modern world, or that by questioning them, I am questioning things that it is futile to question at this point, like the nation state, or even human nature. Surely there must always be an Us and a Them. Surely the nation state is the most civilised and humane way to incorporate necessary elements of human nature into moden life. The carpeted waiting rooms, the immigration queues at airports (in one of which I once saw a little girl vomit into a wastepaper basket while her parents were shouted at for having the wrong stamp or no stamp in their passport), surely everyone can agree that these are better than greeting unwelcome newcomers with cannons or spears.
I am not a policy maker; I’m not here to propose workable alternatives, or any alternatives at all. But I do know that when I stop to think about it — which is very often, and definitely more often than most of the people who work for the System stop to think about it — I can’t help but feel that immigration laws are a ridiculous and shameful invention, a throwback to the kind of tribalism from which we like to think we’ve moved on. How absurd, how utterly absurd that these people can enter that country because these people each have a maroon booklet, while those people each have a green booklet with a different logo on it. And if one of those people with the green booklets really wanted to set off a bomb — or worse — in that country, couldn’t he just apply legally, take his time, wait until he had the right stamp in his green booklet, and then do his foul deeds?
Sitting in the waiting room of the Canadian Embassy Visa Section that day, hoping my husband and daughter had had the good sense to go back into a warm café after our appointed meeting time had come and gone (because of course no mobile phones are allowed inside the visa section), I thought of a scene in Hand Me Down World in which a boatload of people from an unnamed African country approach the coast of an unnamed European country in the middle of the night. These people have paid for their passage on this fish-stinking boat; they have been promised that they will reach Europe safely. In order to keep the boat light, they have not eaten since beginning their journey. The protagonist of the novel, a young woman who used to work at a luxury hotel and who needs to get to Germany for particularly urgent reasons of her own, has paid for her berth by having “hotel sex with foreigners.”
The boat slows, and for the first time they see the coastal lights of Europe shining in the distance, beckoning them onward. Then the young woman hears a loud splash from the stern of the boat.
She watched a black face scramble and clutch a buoy at the side of the boat.
The man was still hugging it as the boat pulled away. Now, for the first time,
she heard the instructions. Another boat would be by to pick them up. They
weren’t to worry. They could expect to be in the sea for upwards of an hour.
They should hang onto the buoy and wait. There was no need to be afraid.[…]
An older man sitting further along the gunwale quietly announced he could
not swim. He was sitting with a box of belongings on his lap, his long peasant
arms thrown over it. No one said anything and no one turned to look at the
splash he made.
This is fiction, but anyone who follows the global discussion of illegal immigration closely will know that it is based on fact. Every night, at least dozens of these boats leave Africa for Europe (insert the names of any overburdened continent and any continent perceived as rich). People are dropped off into the ocean. Nobody documents their deaths; nobody knows what percentage of these people actually arrive at their destinations, because that is their goal, after all, to avoid being counted, to avoid being noticed by the System.
There’s a passage in a book my daughter loves that begins: Perhaps I have started farfetching. Perhaps I am stretching things some. And sometimes, when I begin at Point A — the waiting room of the Canadian Embassy (Visa Section) in Paris — to a very distant point B — the anonymous ocean into which refugees, wearing their belongings in plastic bags tied to their necks, are dropped every night — I fear I have stretched things so far that they will snap. Yet I am not trying to make some melodramatic claim about visa officials at the Canadian Embassy being no better than the unscrupulous types who push people off boats after having collected their life savings. I am not for a moment comparing the process — however painful — of applying for a legal visa to stowing away on a fishing boat. I suppose part of what I am saying is that those of us waiting in the warmth of a waiting room — even those of us who are going to be turned away by an official who shouts at us — are the lucky ones. The System is more vicious than even the unluckiest of us — I think of the young woman at the embassy in Paris whose shirt kept riding up her back as she begged the embassy official, and who finally broke down, dissolving into a tragic mess of tears and shirt-adjusting, and I think of the way in which the shirt-adjusting somehow made everything so much worse and brought it all home to me, the abjection, the humiliation, the indignity — usually realise. To be allowed to stand on Canadian soil for half an hour even if you didn’t want to be there, to be Allowed to Leave, to be denied entry in the comfort of an embassy or an airport, to pay for your efforts with your pride and a wasted morning rather than with your life: the System demands gratitude for these mercies.
[Images: Distant Shore by Dibutil Ftalat on flickr; Passport by Gravity Wave on flickr; Kosovo Refugees 2 by United Nations Photo on flickr; Vietnamese family part of 100 refugees from Tung-An by Government Press Office on flickr; Kosovo Refugees by United Nations Photo on flickr; Korean Refugees by United Nations Photo on flickr; Boat Refugees 2 by Carsten Fonsdal Mikkelson on flickr; Moon, Sea, Groyne, Beach by Mole-Volio on flickr.]