A Puerto Rican in Paris: Expat Nightmares
Here in the United States, we are constantly criticizing our immigration system, the inhumane politics of a wall to keep people out and the lack of a coherent policy. These criticisms are all valid, but we sometimes forget to ask ourselves how our immigration problems in the United States fare against other countries. Being human after all, we tend to idolize other countries and their policies without really knowing the full truth behind those other societies.
When I moved to France in 2005 I quickly learned why the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. I actually had the opportunity to experience what it was like to be a real immigrant in another country and I can honestly say it was one great life lesson. To many of us, France equates to the Eiffel Tower, romantic walks along the Seine and cafés at every corner. But this is just one very superficial, tourist aspect of France. When you have the chance to actually live there, as a regular immigrant citizen, you quickly learn that perhaps, just perhaps, we don’t always give the United States its fair shake. You also quickly learn that the old French slogan “liberté, egalité, fraternité” doesn’t ring true for most of its immigrant masses and even their children.
My husband and I went to France with the same wide-eyed notion I described before. I could see myself sipping lattes and eating crépes, walking along the Seine, soaking up everything that Paris had to offer. Yet, when we got there, our first experience at an immigration office included waiting in line as early as 5:00 am. I saw people, especially Asians and Africans being berated, insulted and bullied by French immigration officials. I saw an outdated, bureaucratic system which in many cases, wasn’t even an electronic one, but still stuck to the old paper trail documentation. My husband’s papers and mine were processed in separate cities even though he was sponsoring me (he was the student and I the wife). This resulted in my husband getting his temporary residence almost immediately and me finding myself pregnant and being treated as an undocumented immigrant when we applied for health benefits (one of the few perks is universal coverage). I was also technically not able to leave the country for the holidays since after more than 3 months of applying for my temporary papers, the office hadn’t even gotten around to looking at them.
Seven months into our stay we decide to move to another location, this time in the heart of Paris. My naiveté got the best of me as I expected that my papers would transfer from one office to the next and the process for my temporary residence (yes, temporary) would continue. Unfortunately, my second experience at an immigration office was worse than the first one. After waiting for about two hours and explaining the situation to an officer, she starts handing me a ton of paperwork. The same paperwork I had filled out months ago. I figured she is mistaken, that my French was not so good and again explained that all my paperwork is done I just need them to transfer it to the new location. The woman then replies no; that because I moved I had to start the process ALL OVER AGAIN! And that she was going to give me an appointment to come back in three months so that I could re-apply. I was dumbfounded. I told her that I would need the appointment for 6 months from now since I was 6 months pregnant and leaving France to deliver. She then replied again no, that she would give me the appointment in three months and that if I didn’t come I would have to come back after delivery and get yet ANOTHER appointment. She then looks at me and says “You are American, right? Well, if you come back in September, I will give you the appointment for December. But you are not planning to stay after December, right? So, just don’t come back!” To which right afterwards, she starts a conversation with her colleague on how impressed she was that I had such a small belly for a 6 month pregnancy, but that my “poitrine” (chest) was huge!
I was not the only one in this situation and I was lucky. I knew people who had lived in the country for 3 years and still didn’t have temporary residency (even when married to a French person). I saw how immigrants from developing countries were badly treated and learned that violence against immigrants had increased. That was also the year Paris was burning. The ones revolting? Not the immigrants, but rather the children of immigrants who were still treated as outcasts even though they had French citizenship. French law doesn’t allow for children born in the country to automatically become citizens, unlike the United States. French law states that you must live 4 years in the country between the ages of 12 and 18 after being born there, to be able to APPLY for citizenship.
I don’t want to in any way belittle or diminish the immigration system in the United States because as we all well know the problems are plenty. But I just want to give another, perhaps a little bit broader view…to help everyone remember that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.