Home is where your visa is

Most of my friends know that the word ‘visa’ has haunted me for most of my life. Like many ex-pats from Dubai, I grew up with an Indian passport despite never living there and always knew that my status in my real hometown was 100% contingent on my dad’s employer continuing to sponsor his work visa. As a child, when my family and I travelled, we almost always needed to file for visas and even our one school trip abroad involved two teachers escorting 70 students to the British embassy to work on visa paperwork (I still feel bad for those teachers!). When I went to university in the US, I spent the summer agonizing over student visa paperwork and fees but to me, that was just normal life. Until I left my little bubble in Dubai, I’d never really met people who didn’t need visas to do everything in their lives and it was a truly alien concept.

When I arrived in the US, the web of visa complexity exploded. International students are barely permitted to work and have a very strict quota of ‘work months’ even for internships. Despite getting an internship at an American company, I found myself meticulously calculating the number of weeks I could work there to be sure I wouldn’t make a mistake and accidentally incur the wrath of the genuinely terrifying US visa authorities (hi USCIS!).

Once I managed all of this and graduated with a full-time job in New York, the visa fear continued to hang over most of us international students. Even if you get a job after studying in the US (and spending an average of $200k in tuition per student), you can only work for a year (except for certain degree qualifications) before entering a randomized lottery to see if you can extend your work visa. This controversial practice has come under fire many times, with American universities and companies repeatedly highlighting the (pretty obvious) flaws in using a random lottery to hand out work visas to students who have invested time and money in US education.

Photo of London by Fred Moon on Unsplash

Long story short, the visa monster won that round and I had to find a new country to apply for visas in. Thanks to my company’s support, I was able to find a similar role in our London office and set off on my journey to the UK. As is often the case, in hindsight, this was an incredible turn of events and I’m eternally grateful to USCIS for sort of kicking me out — I love London and my life here. The visa stress also relaxed a bit in London. You still needed a work visa of course, but the rules were simpler and easier to follow (no computer lotteries to contend with for a start), with a clear path to citizenship.

Fast forward to five years later, and I received my Permanent Residence card in the UK (Indefinite Leave to Remain, i.e. ILR) which simply means that I no longer require a visa to reside in the UK. I can just… live… without restrictions, without confusing calculations, without carrying 10 pages of documentation whenever I travel. When I received my ILR late last year, I was in a bit of shock for a while. It was the first time in my life that my status in a country didn’t depend on an arbitrary visa where rules can change at any point. Home is where the heart is (and all that jazz), but if you’ve been vigorously nodding along to most of this post, you know that home is where you can live and establish roots without a constant fear of your entire life being uprooted on a whim. With Covid-19, we know firsthand how unpredictable life can be and 4 months later, I still look at my ILR card and get a little emotional. It seems apt that I wrote this while flying back to London as well — it’s always good to be heading home after all.



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Shalaka Laxman

Avid reader and proud cat lady. Writing a weekly sustainability news focussed email newsletter at www.byshax.com/newsletter.