The Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island & the 21st Century Immigrant

New York Statue of LibertyFor an American, thinking about immigration often brings to mind stories of families that have shaped the country. The narrative is almost always about long boat journeys undertaken by very poor people to reach what was then considered to be the promised land of wealth and freedom. Family tales depict ancestors wiping tears from their eyes at their first sighting of the Statue of Liberty, after which they arrived at Ellis Island to undergo the immigration process. Their entire future depended on those few minutes with the immigration officer and then the doctor, who were there to verify people’s identities and to separate the healthy immigrants from the sick, undesirable ones. Even today, many decades later, the word immigration is still linked emotionally to a crucial part of American history. It is no wonder, then, when I give a presentation about the process for Americans wishing to immigrate to France, that there are plenty of misconceptions to address before I can explain the rules and give the advice needed to make this process as easy as possible.

Today, most of the Americans I meet who inquire about establishing residency in France, have flown across the Atlantic on numerous occasions and barely notice the immigration officer who takes about twenty seconds to look at their passport. They have the financial means to establish permanent residency, and they often buy upscale apartments in Paris. In other words, they never resemble the “immigrant” image so prevalent throughout US history. As a result, I need to stay away from two extreme positions in discussing this topic:

1/ I never state that the process is simple and easy and that being issued a visa is just a formality. Acquiring an immigrant visa requires a lot more work than just passing through the French immigration procedure as a tourist.

2/ I also avoid giving the list of all the documents required for the visa request and the list of all the tasks that must be done between the moment the request is submitted and the moment the applicant receives the carte de séjour, which is the most common French immigration document. The audience would be completely discouraged before I got halfway though the inventory, and would feel that this is a colossal task that is not worth the effort.

I choose instead to present the six types of immigration visas and then focus on the easiest to get. After all, you can immigrate to France if you can provide evidence of having minimum reserves of $22,000 (for one year), a place to live and a comprehensive health insurance program that is valid in France. That makes it sound much easier because these requirements make sense. However, France being the paper-loving country that it is, civil servants will want several documents to satisfy each of these requirements, not to mention documents to prove the applicant’s identity.

The point is that when people immigrate to the United States, there has always been a “gatekeeper” who decides whether to let them in. France gives the impression of allowing people to come and go freely, despite the fact that it, too, has a very real “gatekeeper.”

These days, so many people regularly travel abroad that crossing a border no longer seems like crossing a real frontier. For some, waiting in line to have their documents inspected by the immigration officer feels no worse than an annoyingly long line at the post office or supermarket. It is no longer a big deal: holding an American passport means being able to travel freely among Western nations. The split second the officer takes to look at the passport is nothing like the complete review of all immigration documents. There is nothing left to compare with what went on at Ellis island, except the fact that people are crossing a border.

Moreover, this shift in perceptions regarding immigration comes at a time when all Western countries have significantly increased the protection of their borders. They now try to monitor the foreigners coming in, almost handpicking those who get the right to immigrate. This is particularly true for the USA. Throughout most of its history, it was known as a country that was proud of welcoming immigrants with open arms. This all changed, seemingly on a single day: now it seems to suspect every foreigner of posing a potential threat to national security. As a result it is now harder than ever to obtain and retain immigrant status in the USA.

These two coinciding developments make immigration issues quite difficult to grasp, especially for Americans, who have a hard time accepting that the border they can cross easily as tourists becomes an iron door when they try to settle in a foreign country. I believe that the most difficult thing for Americans in France to accept is the feeling that they are trapped, that they have no recourse except to go back to the USA and request an immigration visa. While American citizens may stay months or even years in France without immigration documents, such stays constitute a felony under French law, although there exists a grey area that means they may benefit from extremely lenient treatment by the French police. Still, such leniency does not apply at the Préfecture de Police, where immigration documentation is requested. The message I often hear from these trapped Americans is: “How come I can’t get legal status in France now that I’m here? If this is the law, then I should NOT have been allowed to enter the country in the first place. Therefore it is the French police’s fault if I am in this situation. I have a right to proper information.”

This is why I often evoke the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in my explanation, to materialize the frontier and what it means to be an immigrant. It puts the topic back in perspective.



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