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.