What governments can do to help immigrants belong

People's Panel Series This piece is part of a series of contributions from the CPI People's Panel - a group of people who are passionate about the impact that government can and should have on people's daily lives. We provide this forum as part of our listening journey to help governments be more responsive to the needs of people.

I’ve had the privilege of spending most of my formative years in three different Western countries: Trinidad and Tobago, the US, and the UK. I hold a Trinidad and Tobago passport, although I haven’t lived there in almost a decade. I spent eight years in the US and currently live in the UK. But since I left the Caribbean, I’ve felt unable to call a place home. I’ve been living in countries where policymakers make it more and more difficult for foreigners like me to live and work, and where politicians’ speeches demonise not just immigrants but also women, people of different religions, and people of colour.

There are numerous studies that demonstrate the economic and cultural benefits of immigration, but they’ve failed to halt the rise of populism and xenophobia. As a woman of colour who’s lived in different countries from adolescence to adulthood, I’ve come to understand how differently society treats people depending on their age, gender, race and nationality. This may seem obvious, and I knew what to expect in theory, but experiencing it first hand is quite another matter.

Kim representing Trinidad and Tobago at an international swimming competition in 2016

Welcome to America?

When I lived in the US, though I was a successful student athlete with a bright future, I was always afraid that the smallest infraction could result in my being deported from the country. Not once did I feel I could apply to any part of government for assistance whether local, state or federal nor did I have genuine access to the political process. This was particularly unfair since my tax dollars went to fund all these institutions, while I could only reap a fraction of the benefits.

In 2016, there were many around me who felt I was being churlish in expressing my opinion about the presidential election, given that I didn’t have the right to vote. This was despite the fact that immigration was one of the main campaign issues, and the election result was likely to have a direct impact on my future.

In hindsight, as someone who studied, lived, worked, and paid taxes in the US, I wonder why I was treated like an immigrant rather than an expat? 

While this might seem to be mere semantics, we all identify with one label or another in order to feel a connection to the world and society we live in. There was always the feeling that I was just an immigrant who should feel lucky even to set foot in the country, let alone be able to work and be a member of society. I was essentially a second-class citizen.

The changeable British climate

Moving to the UK hasn’t made things any easier. I’ve had to deal with the Theresa May era policy that allows international students only four months at the end of our studies to live and find work in the UK. Boris Johnson recently extended the work visa to two years, but this policy change won’t take effect until 2020. So, my classmates and I are still faced with the daunting challenge of having to land a job within four months of the end of our course – or leave the country.

The government announcement was accompanied by the usual platitudes, such as wanting to attract the “best and the brightest” to stay in the UK. While this is great news for international students graduating from UK universities next year, the announcement is just one example of how immigrants are at the mercy of policymakers’ whims and fancies. 

My fellow students and I face the reality that our immigrant status makes us undesirable to employers, which is not quite what the university promised when it encouraged us to apply.

The fate of EU citizens living in the UK – and UK citizens living in the EU – is just as precarious, and subject to change. The May government promised EU citizens a transition period until the end of 2020 to obtain settled status in the UK, but the Johnson government has said that freedom of movement for EU citizens will end whenever the UK leaves the EU. 

In short, there is a disconnect between the government and the lives of millions of people who are affected by their policy decisions. It’s almost impossible to believe that I’m a valued member of society when the opportunity to start my career and gain valuable work experience fluctuates with the government of the day.

Kim is currently pursuing her Master’s in Public Policy at King’s College London

A plea for government to resist nativism

In summary, it seems that everywhere we’re becoming increasingly hostile to immigrants. This is not just the case in the US and the UK, it’s also happening in my home country of Trinidad and Tobago, where locals have been protesting against the recent influx of Venezuelan refugees. In many cases, this is aggravated by political rhetoric, which – in our increasingly unstable economic times – is promoting nativism and shifting blame onto vulnerable minorities.

All governments should aim to build a more welcoming environment and make clear that they’re in favour of more diverse and inclusive societies. They need to argue that immigrants like me don’t come here to steal people’s jobs or make access to government services more difficult, but to create a better life for ourselves and be productive and committed members of society. 

It would make us feel like this is a place where we can belong.