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Life as an Illegal Immigrant Inside a ‘Hostile Environment’

Half my twenties were spent in fear and constant paranoia

Felipe Araujo
Jun 8, 2018 · 8 min read
Photo: Unsplash
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Life in Britain was never meant to start with a lie.

It was summer 2004, and I was standing in line at the university enrollment office. I handed my application to the administrator and told her I was raised in Portugal. I expected her to ask for my ID, which would show that I was born in Brazil and would therefore be required to pay thousands of pounds more in tuition. But she never asked, and I never said anything. As far as she was concerned, I was Portuguese and an EU citizen — and therefore would be able to afford the lower fees for a college education.

For black and brown people in the West, colours are big signifiers. As the son of an interracial marriage, I’ve had comments about the colour of my skin my whole life. But the difference between blue and red also played a crucial role in how my life panned out; blue is the colour of the Brazilian passport I’ve had from birth, and red is the colour of the Portuguese passport I earned a little over seven years ago, four years after I graduated.

Even as a EU student, I had to fund my college life in London by working part-time at a restaurant and a call centre. I remember hanging out with my classmates in the university’s cafeteria while they bragged about how they were going to spend their student loan on a holiday in Greece, or on a car, or on getting drunk on Saturday night.

My own existence was very different. The money from my part-time gigs was never enough, and I was constantly broke and hungry. One evening, after a long day of classes, I spent the last of my cash on a cheeseburger but dropped it on the floor of the bus. One of my classmates was with me, but I didn’t care — I picked up what was left of my dinner and ate that thing as if I’d never eaten a burger before.

By the time I turned 22, in 2007, my student visa was about to expire. Unless I found an employer willing to act as my sponsor, I had no right to remain in Britain. I was on the cusp of graduating and had nowhere else to go, so I stayed put and became an illegal immigrant.

Half of my twenties were lived in fear and paranoia. I was terrified that uniformed men would charge into my tiny rented room in North London and take me away to a detention centre. Any sign of law enforcement set me off, and when I heard police sirens and helicopters flying overhead, I was convinced they were after me. My whole body tensed up every time our doorbell rang unexpectedly.

At the time, Conservative Party leader Michael Howard started taking a hard line on immigration, saying the UK should introduce a cap on immigration and quotas for asylum seekers, a curb on work permits through an Australian-style points system, and 24-hour security at ports. My paranoia took over. Every time I saw Howard on TV I was reminded of my precarious situation.

A natural introvert, my illegal status affected every aspect of my life. I found it hard to sustain relationships, wary of anyone getting too close in case I had to flee. One girlfriend was very supportive, and she sometimes gave me money for food and rent — in a way, I felt she was investing in me. She thought, I suppose, that if she managed to get me through the storm, we’d eventually get married and have kids. After four years, she ended it because I couldn’t see that far ahead.

For obvious reasons, it’s hard to put an exact figure on the number of illegal immigrants living in the UK, but the estimate is around 500,000. In the United States, there are some 11 million people living and working illegally.

In the so-called developed world, the immigration debate tends to revolve around two assumptions: there are people who deserve to be here, and people who don’t. Wealthy nations want the Indian doctors, the East Asians with a knack for science, the nurses from the Caribbean. Then there are those fleeing war or political persecution — people we have a ‘moral obligation to help.’

But we are not always who you think we are. Some of us wait on street corners in the early morning hours to be taken to work on a construction site. Some of us clean your office. And some of us go about our business as if we truly belong, graduating from college and ending up working for prestigious media organisations.

My family moved to Portugal as part of the first wave of Brazilians who arrived there in the late 1980s. I was three years old, my brother was two.

Once the world’s first modern empire — with a slavery legacy to match — Portugal struggled under a fascist dictatorship until 1974. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, its tiny population of 10 million remained among the poorest in the European Union.

We were typical working-class immigrants. My mum held a string of jobs before becoming a qualified Portuguese and History teacher. My father is a musician. Money was always tight, but we weren’t poor. We lived in a tourist town in the south of the country where most young people wait tables or work behind a bar. I am the eldest of three children (our sister was born in Portugal in 1994), and when I looked at the lives of those around me, I knew I wanted more. I always wanted to leave.

My brother and I quickly assimilated, however; we had Portuguese accents, made friends with local kids and played for the town’s basketball clubs. But we didn’t automatically become EU citizens.

In Portugal the process is long, and you need to be over 18 and have been a resident for six years. You also need to have had a residency card from the moment of arrival, and for various reasons I didn’t get one until I was 15. Citizenship would not be an option until I was 21.

As a teenager growing up in the ’90s the dream was America. Some of my friends used to call me Mike because of my obsession with Michael Jordan.

I got what I wanted. In 2002, shortly before my 16th birthday, I moved to Walton, Indiana, to finish high school as part of a foreign exchange program. Walton was a small community of 2,500 people, surrounded by cornfields, where social life revolved around high school football and church — a far cry from the hip-hop music videos I used to watch on MTV.

I stayed with the school’s vice principal and his wife in a wonderful house tucked away in the woods. They were kind, generous, Christian folk with a genuine interest in other places and cultures. She was a wonderful baker, and he was a devoted Notre Dame football fan. I came to love both of them.

My 18 months in the United States flew by. I had my own little crew, and our team won the state basketball championship that year. By the time I graduated, I was speaking fluent English with an American accent. It felt like home, and I didn’t want to leave.

While other seniors were about to enjoy their summer before heading off as college freshmen, I was filled with uncertainty. My academic and athletic abilities weren’t good enough to get a scholarship. But going back to Portugal didn’t feel like an option. That year in the United States had changed my life, and I wanted to keep pushing forward.

So I decided to apply for university in the UK. I had two friends studying in Derby, a big university town in the north of England. I had no particular desire to live in the UK but a real determination to study journalism. I wanted to keep on writing and speaking English, as I knew there would be more opportunities for journalism in English than in Portuguese.

I was accepted into a one-year foundation course at Derby that would prepare me for university and arrived with £200 in my pocket. It was 2003, I was 17 years old.

In 2004, I moved to London and transferred to study at Middlesex University. To survive, I worked as a waiter, doing far more hours than my visa allowed. My managers were flexible, and there were other people in the same situation as me. We needed the money, and they needed the workers.

There were lucky breaks, too. I landed an internship at the BBC, transcribing hours of footage for a documentary they had shot in Brazil. The BBC gave me my first experience of the British establishment, working alongside journalists who’d gone to university at Oxford and Cambridge and who had a way of talking to each other that I just couldn’t grasp. I felt like a fish out of the water, and to this day I’m confused by the nuances of the British class system.

In November 2006, I was invited to join the internship programme at CNN International. Again, they never asked about my immigration status. Again, I struggled to fit in. Newsrooms are a peculiar place: They attract passionate and competitive people, but they’re also full of cynics — people who have been doing it for years, have seen it all, and are never impressed by anything.

My CNN internship turned into a job offer; when they told me the salary, I felt like I had just won the lottery. Even in my junior role, I found myself involved in the coverage of huge international stories: the Arab Spring, the day London won the 2012 Olympics, the royal wedding between William and Kate, the 2008 financial crisis. I would go into editorial meetings and sit next to the likes of Christiane Amanpour and Richard Quest. My mind would wander: “I wasn’t supposed to be here.”

Most immigration systems are arbitrary and difficult to navigate. In Britain, my life turned on a penny at the whim of some laid-back administrators who didn’t bother to do their due diligence. I managed to make the most of these fortuitous blunders but the vast majority of people in the same situation aren’t so lucky — they are deported, taken from their loved ones, and held in detention centres for long stretches.

Two years ago in Istanbul, I interviewed a group of women from Syria who fled their country’s brutal civil war. Some of them wanted to stay and try to rebuild their lives in Turkey, while others were waiting to travel to other European countries. All of them mentioned education, a better future for their children, and peace as the primary reasons for wanting to move. Public housing and universal healthcare — a social patrimony the UK and other European nations built out of the ruins of their own wars — were, to them, a sort of an afterthought.

In the hope of stemming the tide of immigrants, among other domestic issues, Britain voted to leave the EU in June 2016. The future of the three million EU citizens living in Britain now hangs in the balance. Will they be allowed to stay? And if so, under what conditions?

As luck would have it, three months ago my UK permanent residency card arrived in the post. I looked at it once and casually put it on the shelf, right next to my jazz records. My partner was way more excited than me: “People celebrate these things, you know” she said.

But I still flinch when I hear police sirens. My muscles still tense up when someone knocks on my door unexpectedly. Perhaps more unnerving is knowing that whatever this government gives, it can also take away. If the Windrush scandal has proven anything, is that in 2018 Britain, if you look and sound a certain way, your right to be here gets automatically questioned.

My residency card sits on a shelf like a trophy won after a long marathon, not so much as a reward, but as a reminder of what I am and what I once was.

Felipe Araujo

Written by

Photojournalist based in Brussels. Curious.