Yesterday, Poppi Iceland's Open Call about our immigration stories got me thinking. As I looked for posts I'd written about my ancestors' immigration to the United States, and mine to France, I came upon one that still made me feel indignant. When I got onto OS today and saw that our new Editor was on the same wavelength as Poppi, I decided to repost this, with a few small tweaks, to represent the administrative horrors many of us face, simply because of where we want to live.
The Hardest "Easy" Thing I've Had to Do
I dedicate this post to Brassawe and to all my fellow immigrants around the world.
NOTE: This post was originally written in November 2010. Though some administrative procedures and immigration policies have changed at least slightly, the experience and feelings remain, sadly, very much the same.
Despite the city’s size, despite cultural and language differences, despite the fact that I haven’t got a drop of French blood in me, when I first stepped onto the streets of Paris at the age of 13, it felt like where I was supposed to be. It’s like there was this rhythm in me, and it found a perfect harmony with Paris’ low music, a sound you can’t hear but that you see and feel vibrating around you.
It’s taken more than a decade for me to be able to live here definitively. Sometimes even now I sit back and marvel at where I am. I live in Paris, the place I love most in the world. I know so many of her streets and bridges, I know so much of her history, which follows me around wherever I go. I know where to find good deals on all sorts of things, and I know where to take in some of the most beautiful sights of this beautiful city, and that there are so many others still to discover, because Paris is endless.
I know my city and I’ve come to know and care for so many of the people in it. Not only the man I love and live with, but dear friends, quirky neighbors, and pals who’ve been there in times of need. I’ve gotten friendly with waiters and grocery cashiers, I gossip every day with my baker. When I go around my neighborhood, I recognize familiar faces, and those faces recognize mine. Paris herself comforts me when I’m stressed or worried. All I have to do is walk outside for a while. I’m home.
But once a year, something surges up to remind me I’m only here by the grace of the law. I can feel like a part of Paris’ beating heart, I can feel like a cog in the wheel of my community – tant pis (“too bad”): every autumn, as the chill in the air grows glacial, I have to call the Prefecture of Police to set up an appointment for the renewal of my carte de séjour (visa).* While the citizens of Paris and even the city herself might make me feel welcome, the government doesn’t particularly care for me – or any other immigrant, for that matter.
It’s not that I simply have to renew the laminated card that gives me the right to live here. That's understandable. The problem is the way things are done. When you get started in this process, you know there’s no logic, no reasonable reference points, and no respect for you. You could have everything that’s asked for on the official list of documents, but if the government worker in front of you is having a bad day or irrationally hates you, your life will be as difficult as if you went to the Prefecture with a baseball card in lieu of a birth certificate.
A few years ago I came to the required Prefecture branch on the appointed day, with my boyfriend dutifully (and obligatorily, since we have a PACS - basically a common-law marriage) in tow. The documents I’d been asked for were all neatly assembled in a folder, with photocopies of each. The woman in charge of my dossier that year greeted me with the kind of look that another woman easily realizes means trouble. Going through my folder, she chastised me for having made far too many photocopies (the year before, the person in charge of my dossier had told me to make more). Suddenly, she spotted a document that she didn’t like and snapped at me, “C’est quoi, ce bordel?” (loose translation: “What’s this shit?”).
Luckily, not every person I've dealt with has acted this way. But still, dealing with them at all is never pleasant. Every immigration-related place I’ve been to in Paris is bleak and drab-looking. They smell of unwashed bodies and desperation. The workers who deal with you seem to do just that – deal with you – not welcome you. I guess you could say it’s only fair, since I’m asking to stay in their country. But I’m not a burden, either; I earn a living and pay taxes here. Still, I might as well be an undesirable of some kind.
I felt irrationally hopeful as I began the visa renewal process this year. They say you should contact the Prefecture (they never contact you) two months before your current carte de séjour expires. Having dealt with the Prefecture for several years now, I start three months before.** I’m happy to say that this time it only took me two days to get in touch with immigration services (sometimes they just don’t answer the phones***), and that the woman on the line with me was very patient. Maybe things were going to be easy.
But for some reason, they could only give me a meeting for the carte de séjour renewal in April of next year. My carte de séjour expires in February. The woman on the phone explained, “All you have to do is take your summons and a few other documents to the Commissariat (Police Station) of the 14th Arrondissement to get an official note saying you have a renewal appointment in April. It’s very easy.”
The woman on the phone was wrong: that isn’t easy. This Commissariat is the site of one of the hardest easy things I’ve ever had to do.
When I came to France a few years ago, I was told to drop by this Commissariat to get a finalized, laminated copy of my new carte de séjour. Easy enough. But this was July 2006: The government had decided to expel as many illegal immigrants as possible from the country. Completely disregarding the irony of history, they summoned all illegals to their neighborhood Commissariat, where they could plea their cases and perhaps stay in France. No one seemed to see any echoes with the Vichy government’s requiring all Parisian Jews to register themselves at police stations in the early 1940’s – a move which eventually led to the deportation of tens of thousands to Nazi death camps. I was horrified that this country I love so much would dare do something that so smacked of the past they claim to be ashamed of.
When I arrived at the Commissariat with my boyfriend, then a fearful newbie to this whole process, we saw a line of people that extended down the street. Families of illegals had been camped out here for hours already, sometimes longer. One woman I talked to had been sleeping outside for three days, hoping to save herself and her children from being forced to return to their native country. That day, we had to go back home; though we’d arrived well before 9am, it would be impossible to meet with a government worker before closing time. I returned at dawn the next morning.
It broke my heart to see these suffering people. There were no accommodations for them. The Commissariat couldn’t hold all of them, and so they had to wait outside without any kind of shade from the sun or protection from the rain. Single women were forced to stay overnight on a street near a train station full of sketchy denizens. No one seemed to have a problem with this.
“They’re illegal immigrants!” some might try to remind me. Those who think that way live in blissful ignorance. Try for one second to think how you’d feel if you couldn’t live the life you wanted. Not just life in a place you love, like what I was there for, but life where you and your family could have access to food, proper healthcare and hygiene, education, and basic human rights. If you have even a speck of humanity in you, I don’t know how you couldn’t sympathize at least a little with these “illegals”.
All these people stoically standing and awaiting their fate – it was a hellish scene. To compound the upset, nothing was being done for those of us who were in the country legally. I’m not saying we’re any better – just that our cases were completely different, and most of the time much easier to process. But immigrants are immigrants, regardless of our situation. And so, that day we all stood together outdoors, then inside a stuffy room, for eleven hours.
By the end of it, I’d lost my head. I could see the desk I had to get to, but I felt glued to the spot. Others were skipping the line, and I was like a deer in the headlights. I thought about just giving up and going home. Luckily, I was able to steel myself, and I surged forward to get my carte de séjour. Behind where I sat was a room packed with human bodies and odor and noise, infiltrated little by little by the ruthless cruelty that the government workers’ apathy and aggression had engendered. I could leave it now.
Outside, I found bruises around my knees from having been so long on my feet. My mind was numb. All I could think to do was buy myself an ice cream cone. I took comfort in two things: 1. if I’d ever had a doubt that I wanted to live in Paris, what I’d just done proved it definitively. 2. I’d never have to go back to that horrible Commissariat – from then on, I would be dealt with in another office.
But now, I have to go back for the document that says I’m not in the wrong, the government’s just behind schedule. My boyfriend reassured me there wouldn’t be masses of people there, but when I called to see how long a wait I should expect, the woman on the phone snapped at me and told me to get there before the place opened.
During my lunch break today, I decided to go see what the crowd looked like. This was the only way I could get a straight answer. As I left the office where I’d been teaching, I started to feel strange. By the time I got down the street, I was having a barely controlled panic attack. I forced myself to keep going.
I didn't remember what the Commissariat looked like, but once I caught sight of its bleak, gray, water-stained façade, its ugly, medicine-yellow doorway, I wondered how I could have forgotten. The sidewalks around it were bare, but a vision of the flattened cardboard boxes people had slept on, the lines and desperation, flashed into my mind.
In the end, the Commissariat wasn’t nearly as crowded as it had been that horrible day four years ago. But it was crowded all the same. That same oppressive feeling hung menacingly in the air like methane.
It turned out, of course, that the woman on the phone hadn’t told me all of the documents I needed to bring with me to get my note. Ironically, the one I was missing was my foreign passport.
The saddest part of this story is, France is not a country known for its harsh immigration policies. I can’t imagine how foreigners are treated in places with such a reputation, among them New Zealand and the United States.
We often look back at century-old images from immigration centers like Ellis Island and congratulate ourselves that the days when foreigners were handled like animals are gone. But if you visit one of the immigration offices in Paris, especially as an immigrant yourself, you’ll see instantly that this treatment is still very much present - it's just taken on a different form.
*For many years, immigrants living and working in France for five years or more could apply for a ten year residence card; under the Sarkozy government, a 30,000 euro uncombined annual salary requirement was added to this that made many people - myself included - inelgible. Hollande's government has made some positive changes to immigration policy so far, especially concerning foreign students. Maybe the salary requirement will also be dropped, but I'm not very optimistic about it.
**This post was originally published in 2010; as of 2011, the Office of Immigration now recommends doing this five months in advance.
***Recently, a website has been launched that allows you to make an appointment online - much easier than that old dreaded phone call, but woe betide if you count on receiving official confirmation in the mail, as the site indicates; it's better to print out the pages yourself.