amores prohibidos

23 September 2015 10:12 PM (spain | france | europe | immigration)

It was with anxious trepidation that today, after having been officially resident in Spain for 10 years, working and paying taxes all that time, I went to file a request for Spanish nationality.

See, being a non-European resident in Europe is a precarious thing. If ever something happens "back home" with your family or to those that you love and you need to go help out, you might not be able to come back. Sure, if you keep your official residence in Europe maybe you can make it fly under the radar, but officially to keep your right of residence you need to reside, continually. It doesn't matter that you have all your life in Spain, or France, or wheresoever: if you have to leave for a year, you start over at day 1, if you are able to get back in.

In my case I moved away from the US when I was 22. I worked in Namibia for a couple years after college teaching in a middle school, and moved directly from there to Barcelona when a company started up around a free software project I had been working on. It was a more extreme version of the established practice of American diaspora: you go to college far away from home to be away from your parents, then upon graduation your first job takes you far away again, and as the years go by you have nothing left to go back to. Your parents move into a smaller house, perhaps in a different town, your town changes, everyone moved away anyway, and where is home? What makes a home? What am I doing here and if I stopped, is there somewhere to go back to, or is it an ever-removing onward?

I am 35 now. While it's true that there will always be something in my soul that pines for the smell of a mountain stream bubbling down an Appalachian hollow, there's another part of my heart that is twined to Europe: where I spent the all of my working life up to now, where I lived and found love and ultimately married. I say Europe and not specifically Barcelona because... well. My now-wife was living in Paris when we got together. I made many, many journeys on the overnight Talgo train in those days. She moved down to Barcelona with me for a couple years, and when her studies as an interpreter from Spanish and French moved her back to France, I went with her.

That move was a couple years ago. Since we didn't actually know how much time would be required there or if we would be in Switzerland or France I kept my official residence in Spain, and kept on as a Spanish salaried worker. I was terrified of the French paperwork to set up as a freelancer, even though with the "long-term residency-EU" permit it would at least be possible to make that transition. We lived a precarious life in Geneva for a while before finally settling in France.

A note about that. We put 12 months of rent (!!!) in an escrow account, as a guarantee that allowed us to be able to rent our house. In France this is illegal: a landlord is only allowed to ask for a couple months or so. However in France you usually have a co-signer on a lease, and usually it's against your parent's house. So even if you are 45, you often have your parents signing off on your lease. We wouldn't have been able to find anything if we weren't willing to do this -- one of many instances of the informal but very real immigrant tax.

All this time I was a salaried Spanish worker. This made it pretty weird for me in France. I had to pretend I was there on holiday to get covered by health care, and although there is a European health card, it's harder to get if you are an immigrant: the web page seems to succeed but then they email you an error and don't tell why. The solution is to actually pass by the office with your residence permit, something that nationals don't need. And anyway this doesn't cover having a family doctor, despite the fact that I was paying for it in Spain.

This is one instance of the general pattern of immigrants using the health care system less than nationals. If you are British, say, then you know your rights and you know how the NHS works and you make it work for you. If you are an immigrant, maybe English is your second language, probably you're poor, you're ignorant of the system, you don't have family members or a big support system to tell you how the system works, you might not speak or write the language well, and probably all your time is spent working anyway because that's why you're there.

In my case I broke my arm a couple years ago while snowboarding in France. (Sounds posh but it's not really.) If all my papers were in order and I understood the system I would probably have probably walked out without paying anything. As it was I paid some thousands of euros out of my pocket, and that is my sole interaction with health care over the course of the last 5 years I think. I still have to get the plate taken out of my arm; should have done that a year ago. It hurts sometimes.

There is a popular idea about immigrants scrounging on benefits, and as a regular BBC radio 1 listener I hear that phrase in the voice of their news presenters inciting their listeners to ignorant resentment of immigrants with their racist implications that we are somehow "here" for "their" things. Beyond being implausible that an immigrant would actually receive benefits at all, it's unlikely that they would be able to continue to do so, given that residence is predicated on work.

In the US where there are no benefits the phrase is usually reduced to "immigrants are stealing our jobs", a belief encouraged by the class of people that employ immigrants: the owners. If you encourage a general sentiment of "immigrants are bad, let's make immigrants' life difficult", you will have cheaper, more docile workers. The extreme form of this is the American H1B visa, in which if you quit your job, for whatever reason, even if your boss was sexually harrassing you, you have only one week to find another job or you're deported back to your "home". Whatever "home" means.

And besides, owners only hire workers if they produce surplus value. If the worker doesn't pay off, you fire them. Wealth transfer from workers to owners is in general from immigrants to nationals, because if you are national, maybe you inherited your house and could spend your money starting your business. Maybe you know how to get the right grants. You speak the language and have the contacts. Maybe you inherited the business itself.

I go through all this detail because when you were born in a place and grew up in a place and have never had to deal with what it is like being an immigrant, you don't know. You hear a certain discourse, almost always of the form "the horde is coming", but you don't know. And those that are affected the most have no say in the matter.

Of course, it would be nice to pass over to the other side, to have EU citizenship. Spanish would do, but any other Schengen citizenship would at least take away that threat of deportation or, what is equivalent, denial of re-entry. So I assembled all the documentation: my birth certificate from the US, with its apostille, and the legal Spanish translation. My criminal record check in the US, with its apostille, and the legal translation. The certificates that I had been continually resident, my social security payments, my payslips, the documents accrediting me as a co-owner of my company, et cetera.

All prepared, all checked, I go to the records department to file it, and after a pleasantly short half-hour wait I give the documents to the official.

Who asks if I have an appointment -- but I thought the papers could be presented and then they'd give me an appointment for the interview?

No matter, she could give me an appointment -- for May.


And then some months later there would be a home visit by the police.

And then they'd assess my answers on a test to determine that I had sufficient "cultural integration", but because it was a new measure they didn't have any details on what that meant yet.

And then they'd give me a number some 6 months later.

And then maybe they would decide after some months.

So, 2018? 2019, perhaps?

This morning the streets of Barcelona were packed with electoral publicity, almost all of it urging a vote for independence. After the shock and the sadness of the nationality paperwork things wore off, I have been riding the rest of the day on a burning anger. I've never, never been able to vote in a local election, and there is no near prospect of my ever being able to do so.

As kids we are sold on a story of a fictional first-person-plural, the "we" of state, and we look forward to coming of age as if told by some benevolent patriarch, arm outstretched, "Some day, this will all be yours." Today was the day that this was replaced in my mind by the slogan pasted all around Barcelona a few years ago, "no vas a tener una casa en la puta vida" (you'll never own a house in your fucking life). It's profoundly sad. My wife and I will probably be between the two countries for many years, but being probably forever third-class non-citizens: "in no day will you ever belong to a place."

I should note before finishing that I don't want to hear "it could be worse" or anything else from non-immigrants. We have much less political power than you do and I doubt that you understand what it is like. What needs to happen is a revaluing of the nature of citizenship: countries are for the people that are in them, not for some white-pride myth of national identity or only for those that were born there or even for people who identify with the country but don't live there. Anything else is inhuman. 10+ years to simply *be* is simply wrong.

As it is, I need to reduce the precarious aspect of my life so I will probably finally change my domicile to France. It's a loss to me: I lose the Spanish nationality process, all my familiarity with the Spanish system, the easy life of being a salaried employee. I know my worth and it's a loss to Spain too. Probably I'll end up cutting all ties there; too bad. And I count myself lucky to be able to do this, due to the strange "long term-EU" residency permit I got a few years ago. But I'm trading a less precarious life for having to set up a business, figure out social security, all in French -- and the nationality clock starts over again.

At least I won't have to swear allegiance to a king.

18 responses

  1. Ted Stockwell says:

    I don't mean for this comment to in any way diminish the problems that you have as an immigrant, but you say that you need to reduce the precarious aspect of your life. So why not move back to the US?

    From your description, it seems that Europe has at least one thing in common with the US, immigrants are abused, denigrated, and blamed for problems not really caused by immigrants. It seems like you're trying to swim upstream, if you've reached the age where you need things to be easier perhaps its time to start swimming with the flow.

  2. Janne says:

    I've been living in Japan for 13 years now. First on a series of work visas, but about three years ago I got a permanent residency permit. Like in Europe (and, I suspect pretty much anywhere) I have to be in Japan at least once in the span of a year or lose residency.

    Getting the residency permit was time consuming but fairly straightforward. There's a fair amount of "flex" when judging whether you qualify, but I never had trouble (nor did I expect there to be). I did consider naturalizing - that's actually easier than residency in some ways - but Japan does not allow dual citizenship. For all that Japan is home to me, I'm still also Swedish and don't want to lose that connection.

    Both for residency and naturalization the whole process can take up to a year (or more, in some rural municipalities). Part of it is assembling and translating lots of documents (my parents' birth certificates, in a format the Japanese authorities accept, was a real joy to track down). But a lot of it was simply waiting. I'm lucky to live in a large city with many foreign residents, so they have plenty or resources to deal with these applications. But another important point was to not do it all myself, but hire a paralegal to actually do the applicication. That easily cuts months from the process, since they know exactly where to go, who to talk to and in what order, to make things as smooth as possible.

    As a foreigner here, I do feel cut off to some extent. I can't vote, and I'm barred from some occupations that are for Japanese citizens only; many city or national government occupations, including public school teachers, are restricted. But the main impediments really are the language and shared cultural barriers. The language you can learn, but you will not get around the fact that your experiences growing up will be very different from those around you, in small ways and large. The way to deal with that is really just to accept it.

    On the other hand, as you say, I'm no longer integrated into my original home either. After more than a decade, not only have the people I know moved on, but the society itself has changed enough to feel somewhat alien to me. I'm probably as much at home here in Japan now as I am in Sweden. Give it another ten years and I might reconsider my stance towards citizenship.

  3. M Welinder says:

    What a mess!

    I am in a similar situation except for the countries involved. For example, I haven't had any voting rights for something like 19 years. And I get fingerprinted every time I travel back to the US. On the other hand I have also seen how my country, Denmark, treats even highly-educated people applying for a visa to go to a scientific conference. Not nicely.

    If you ever get into reentry problems, remember that if your wife is an EU citizen then she has the right to work in any other EU country and to bring her family, ie., you. That's pretty much a near-instant residency permit.

  4. James says:

    Thank you for that.

    I have dealt with immigration issues a few times now. I met the girl that would become my wife when I was living in Paraguay. We were married in the US when she was visiting on a tourist visa (it was not planned that way) so we spent our first year of married life in different countries while we waited for her green card application to be processed - there was the risk that if she overstayed on the tourist visa, since we were not married on a fiance visa, she would be charged with visa fraud and prohibited from entering the US for 10 years. Romantic!

    Recently, now that we have children, I looked for a better environment than the New York City area in which to raise them and a position opened up in our Munich, Germany office that I decided to take. My wife had not yet become a US citizen, but we had lived long enough there so she could apply. This would be the prudent thing to do since my children and I are US citizens and if we decided to return from Munich we would have to start the green card process all over again (another year apart? with kids?). This has meant some time apart while I work in Germany and she does the citizenship exam and waits for the swearing in ceremony in the US, but hopefully it is our last immigration separation.

    Meanwhile, in Germany, I was provided with an EU blue card (karte blau) that provides my family and I residence and work permission. One of the things I learned quickly about Germany is that there are a lot of rules, but they seem mostly there for foreigners and not for Germans themselves. For an example, I know some co-workers that would sign up for university classes, which are free, and never go - just to get the student benefits like reduced fee train tickets, etc. I don't think a foreigner would ever try something like that. Immigrants like myself are supposed to break the rules when it comes to the limits on number of hours worked during a day, week, or weekend through while my German colleagues are enjoying themselves at home.

    When I went to get my EU blue card my wife and daughter were denied residence permits because they came to Germany under the normal tourist visa and I did not have the apostile for our marriage certificate and my daughter's birth certificate. It was recommended that they return to New York and apply at the consulate there, where the papers they submitted would be mailed back to the Munich office and processed by the same people we were talking to. A call from my HR department was able to clear that up - proving again that it is all who you know. I have run into the same issues in trying to find an apartment and get health care - if I didn't have an HR person, a German, that could help me I would be lost.

    Here in Germany there have also been weekly PEGIDA rallies - the right wing anti-immigrant group - near my apartment. I told my boss about this and he said that it wasn't anti-western immigrant, it was just against those that refuse to conform to western values. This same blatant discrimination against (let's be clear) Muslims might come in the same conversation as someone asking me why Americans are so racist against black people without the person seeing the irony in those statements. Even my Chinese co-workers - immigrants to Germany themselves - are worried that allowing refugees into Germany is asking for terrorism and would be happy to keep them in fenced off camps.

    So far I am not that impressed with my experience here. While the US does have many problems, the fact that it has been a multicultural society for longer than any of the European countries means that it is a bit further along in dealing with these issues of race and immigration. While the US still produces people like Donald Trump, there is also still a large liberal wing that works towards creating a more just and inclusive society. While Europe might have been able to claim that - it was always a bit easier here due to the homogeneous populations. I think that immigration will continue to be an issue here and you will see more European Donald Trumps before you get more European Bernie Sanders.

  5. Andres says:

    I feel you, man! :(

    Thanks for this post, I will share and spread.

  6. Janne says:

    I think, and other comments here implicitly point it out, that it's not prudent to try to deal with this kind of paperwork on your own. As you say yourself, you don't really know the ins and outs of the system well enough.

    Go talk to an immigration lawyer or paralegal, in Spain and in France. Find out what your options really are. You may qualify for immediate residency - but at least a spouse visa - simply by being married to a citizen. Previous years of legal residency in Spain may open other options as well.

  7. philtrick says:

    This does sound like a trial to go through. Living in Europe you forget quite easily that it is hard for people who are not citizens.

    The only other avenue you could look to pursue is potentially ancestral qualification for European citizenship.

    Each country has its own rules, but depending on how recently your family settled in the US, there might still be qualifying criteria for citizenship, and it might get you sorted a bit quicker.

    Good luck!

  8. wingo says:

    Thank you for the responses. James it's funny how the narrative of "the right kind of immigration" and national identity can also infect the immigrants themselves (ourselves). I remember when I first came to Spain -- well, not the first time, I did spend a year here as a student -- but in 2005 as a young person not really knowing who I was I was trying to search out "the authentic Barcelona" in all its catalanicity. It took me a while to realize that wasn't even a thing, that many people called Barcelona home and there wasn't anything unauthentic or wrong because their family came from another part of the world, or even from another part of Spain. In the US as we don't have deep roots I think we are overly fascinated by those that do have them, and seek them out and even invent them if they don't exist. I had internalized this narrative that politicians against us. The Catalan nationalist story isn't all that much different from Trump's frothing about "illegals".

    Some people above are offering specific solutions, which I'm sure is well-intentioned but ultimately inappropriate I think. The problem is a general one. There are specific aspects to my situation that admit to less bad solutions but individual immigrants are not going to fix the inhumane conditions of immigrants imposed by states.

  9. Miguel says:

    I came across your blog through another Igalian friend that posted your article.

    I'm a Spaniard who has suffered the H1b visa process. It's almost impossible to get a job through that visa, so in the end you have to get it round through a F1 visa to get to the country first and then apply for the H1b visa.

    If you work for a small company as I did, there is not much you can do, do the paperwork and since Sept 11, the visa cap is 65,000 visas, while only people who are undergraduated can get 45,000 visas.

    After you learn that big companies they get their own number of visas under the table.

    So the small company wanted me to stay, I wanted to work for them, they did the paperwork but since there are so less visas, they run a lottery with all the petitioners and I didn't pass it.

    Yes, my life and my future was resolved by some sort of lottery. Like it does if you want to get the green card.

    I'm sorry but at least in Spain if you have a company willing to hire you, all the paperwork can take time but you will get a work permit. I can't buy the comment of the guy that the US laws are thoughtful because you guys are used to have inmigrants.

    Regarding of paying 12 months as a deposit as guarantee for your renting, this happens also for spaniards here in Spain. Most of the time tenants fear people won't pay because of the crisis, so they ask you to get some sort of guaranteed deposit that is used in case you don't pay your rent.

  10. lukego says:

    Looking ahead: How is the "citizenship roadmap" in France? I hope it will be a better experience than Spain.

    I have lived in Sweden and Switzerland. They are quite different. Sweden hands you a passport after 5 years with no fuss. Switzerland is 12 years and then the home police visit, language qualification, etc. I was lucky that I lived in Sweden first and could get a foothold in this continent quickly.

    I hope you find a good solution to knowing that you can always come back across the border. I have had to sneak into my home country a few times, for purely bureaucratic reasons, and it is truly no fun to wonder whether you will be allowed through the border controls when your family is waiting on the other side!

  11. Anon says:

    I have very similar feelings. I too am an American who has moved to Europe. In my case to Prague. In so many cases, I have met a Czech person who would gladly trade passports with me. I wish I could meet someone in a bar, find out that they want to be an American like I want to be Czech and skip the wait :D

    I moved to Prague when I was 18, so my entire adult life has been in this city. If I were to move back "home", I wouldn't even know how to get around, because I have never driven a car and the place where I grew up is a car only city. No busses or walking. I would also probably have a bit of a shock about the legal codes, as I know the Czech system better than the American one.

    My grandmother is Czech, and I moved here to study and take care of her sister (my great aunt). When my aunt died, I actually became illegal for a short while, and it was a really sureal feeling. Especially, because I am the fifth generation of my familly to live in this house. I felt, how can they kick me out of this house, when my familly has been in this city for so long. At the same time, I feel like you, that I am being pushed into stressing something that isn't that important. In reality, my Czech heritage isn't that important, because I didn't speek Czech as a child, and my Czech familly is of a different religion and of different political views. But still, I find myself stressing my heritage, just to feel better about my imigration status.

    Luckly now, I have a visa again, through my Czech wife. But I really feel as if I had no rights. I am afraid to do anything, or protest anything, because I don't want to have a criminal record that could effect the citizenship process.

    So yes, the situation for imigrants sucks. I feel for you.

    Ted Stockwell asks "why don't you move back to the US" I guess the answer is: imigration laws are like DRM. They are an artificial barrier between the physically possible and the officially possible. TIVO works great, why don't you just NOT install free firmware? New York also has a subway system, why don't you move there instead of Prague? I don't think that it is a good thing to plan ones life around the artificial restrictions that someone else has thought up for you.

  12. Anonymoose says:

    Does Canada interest you?

  13. Arne Babenhauserheide says:

    That sounds awful, not only the current situation but also how much the process seems to have scarred you ☹

    I had thought this would get much easier now that you’re married. Maybe you could get support and info from Steve McDonald on how it worked out for him after he married (in Germany):

  14. Samuel Gyger says:

    As disappointing as this experience is, as far as I know, France allows you to apply for a citizenship after 5 years of residence already (still very cumbersome then). BUT the whole "get nationality" procedure in europe got more and more hostile the last years and this is really a pity. I'm gladful that you chose the european union as your place of work and residence.

  15. ldng says:

    First, I feel you're anger. Citizenship access really should be a faster and fair process. Sadly, it's not :-/

    And, as you say, people who never lived a long period abroad don't fully grasp the difficulty.

    All that said, if your wife is French, you've been married for more than 4 years and she did not forgot to register in the French consulat while in Barcelona, I think that you already fulfill the requirement to ask for citizenship "by marriage". Now, for how long is the actual procedure (the administration will want to check it's not a "marriage blanc"), I have no idea.

    I hope you get a better treatment from French administration but don't set your expectations too high ... they're probably understaffed.

  16. Sumana Harihareswara says:

    My sympathies, and thank you for writing about the experience.

  17. cesar says:

    Hi I like your articles about V8, hope you had some luck with the citizenship.
    Buena suerte amigo.

  18. Brandon says:

    Man, I'm sorry to hear you're struggling. The time I spent with you in Barcelona was amazing, and you really were a good guide to the whole thing, having already blazed the trail.

    I understand all of what you're saying, but for me it just ended in returning home. I couldn't deal with the constant anxiety that grew and grew the more time passed. I felt exactly how precarious may situation was. The powers that be were tightening up the rules around immigration even as I was trying to immigrate.

    Best of luck. I think you should write more about your experiences in Spain.

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