Can I Stay or Should I Go?

Why greater immigration literacy leads to empathy.

by Purujith Gautam

I, like much of the world during this pandemic, found myself engaging in an (un)healthy dose of content-binging. Comedies, dramas, thrillers and the standard David Attenborough show that is a literal salve to heal one’s soul…I binged it all.

But there is one interaction in a TV show that has stuck with me. In this classic espionage thriller, there is a scene where the “honest and well-intentioned” CIA agent (yeah right) is in the Middle East on a noble project (yeah right) and can’t seem to grapple with the way things are “done over there”. In a culminating outburst, he aggressively expresses his discontent to an enterprising local who calmly responds to him with a subtle yet powerful dialogue: 

“Geography is Destiny, my friend”

This line, delivered so casually, really struck a chord and made me reflect into how much our geography at birth dictates where we will end up and what paths we can take to get there. It made me reflect on privilege, class and the idea of a “level-playing field”. While that topic has multiple facets to explore, I was particularly reflecting on a tiny document that can often determine one’s life, choices and path: a passport.

As an Indian, I haven’t been a stranger to the challenges that come with a “weak” passport. The idea of applying for a visa to go just about anywhere is internalized. We are accustomed to the standard, and very expensive, 3-month window where your application is thoroughly scrutinized including bank statements, family history, a multitude of proofs and then an interview with a consular representative who can reject it all if they are having a bad day. Oh, and how can I forget, even after getting the visa, there is the eternal fear that you can still be rejected at the port of entry regardless of the visa in your passport. 

The visa application jungle is one that many readers will be familiar with, however, I bring it up because I was shocked by the immense illiteracy that most people, generally from Europe and North America, displayed when it came to understanding how privileged they are vis-à-vis their place in the global immigration network.

“So why don’t you just stay back and wait until you find the right job?”

“Wait…you aren’t allowed to enter the UK on a whim? Not even just for tourism?”

“What do you mean go back home to get the visa stamped in your passport?”

These are just a few questions that I often found myself answering over the last 9 years I have spent in the US and Europe. For some reason, I naively assumed that every educated global citizen would have awareness about these tribulations, but more often than not, my “powerful” passport counterparts would display an acute lack of knowledge, and more importantly, an underlying lack of literacy (and associated empathy) regarding an extremely tricky and uneven global immigration network that separates families, reroutes life trajectories and takes an immense toll on physical and mental health.

I stress on empathy because I believe holders of powerful passports can use it to acknowledge the vast privilege that comes with winning the at-birth geographical lottery ticket. Stay in most countries without a visa? Sure. Show up in a country at will and then look for work? Why not. Overstay a student visa because you can stay as a tourist anyway? Certainly. Cash in on bilateral investment treaties that allow you to extend your stay? Of course. Apply for a job without fear that an algorithm will instantly reject you because you need visa sponsorship? Wait…that happens? Yes it does.

Take a second to imagine and internalize that…there are scores of immigrants legally applying for jobs in your country that don’t make it past the Human Resources algorithm because of their national booklet. Further, and rather ironically, in development-sector focused cities like Geneva, your lottery ticket at birth could actually exclude you from the decision-making table at organizations that are making decisions that impact your own country.

Now let me be clear, on the scale of privilege there are far greater concerns than worrying about where one can and cannot travel for tourism. There are people who have been rendered stateless because of war, persons unfairly discriminated against due to their race and gender, and there are others who, even coming from a “powerful passport” country might never actually get one given existing inequalities and class-related challenges. There is an entire spectrum of issues that receive a varying level of policy-attention, but greater individual literacy regarding global immigration networks can help push companies, organizations and governments to introduce greater empathy into their immigration frameworks. 

On an individual level, greater immigration literacy can help you empathize with someone in your life that just might need that extra bit of support — because I promise you — the number of unknown and known variables in their decision-making matrix are often multiples greater than your own.

Is it truly a “level-playing field” if some players aren’t allowed to even enter the playing field to begin with? Or rather, once they enter the field, are given a different set of rules, and then booted out at half-time?

There’s some food for thought to go with your next pandemic Netflix binge.

About the author:

Purujith Gautam

BA in World Politics @ Hamilton College

MA in International Affairs @ The Graduate Institute

Instagram: puru_g

Twitter: @puru_gautam

Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash

4 comments on “Can I Stay or Should I Go?

  1. Marcia

    Excellent essay and very eye opening to this senior citizen. Thank you Purujith.


  2. Vandana Bahl

    Succinct , smooth n sharp. You nailed it, Puru. And this lens , of one’s international identity and travel document, then impacts the stability n continuity of choosing a partner, marriage, family life, relocation et al.

    Thank you for the term immigration literacy. One hopes it’s use will build immigration empathy


  3. Hey there! Graduate Institute student here who has been waiting for a Swiss visa for 16 months! (:
    Great essay Purujith! Inmigration literacy could be something to talk about during orientation or a seminar.


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