Woes Of An American Immigrant In The UK

There was an article in the Economist ("In praise of a second (or third) passport; Multiple identities are natural. Citizenship laws should catch up") in January 2012 that talked about the benefits of dual citizenship and some of the issues with being an immigrant—even a contributing immigrant. Here’s some of my story.

Highly Skilled Migrants Need Not Apply

I immigrated to the UK from the US. I’m on a programme called the Tier 1 (General) points based system. This seems like a great idea. If you can demonstrate that you’re relatively young, have a history of good employment, speak English, and have a good education, you can earn enough “points” to get a relatively unrestricted visa to come live and work for a couple years at a time. This seems like a pretty reasonable way to select the most desirable immigrants and let them in. It is so logical, in fact, that the programme has been killed. It literally doesn’t exist. Furthermore, for those of us still on it, they continue to tweak the rules making it increasingly harder to remain on it.

Today, if you have a million pounds of cold, hard cash, and you want to invest it in the UK, well you can get a visa. But if you would be a valuable employee paying lots of taxes, you’re no longer welcome.

Citizens Should Thank Their Immigrant Neighbours

Fortunately they allow me to continue renewing under essentially the same rules. But what does that let me do? Well, it sure lets me pay taxes. I pay the full whack of taxes that anyone else in my position would pay. Income tax, council tax, VAT (obviously), and everything that citizens pay. Additionally, every two years I pay on the order of £1000 per person to renew my visa for me and everyone in my family.

According to ukpublicspending.co.uk, 20% of the UK budget is spent on pensions, and 16% is spent on welfare. That’s two categories of public money that I am not allowed to draw on legally. I have to admit that I draw my fair share of health services, public transport, protection, defence, etc. I admit that 64% of the taxes I pay are returned to me in the form of services. But 36% of my tax pounds are given to citizens who are unable to provide for themselves. Should I ever, even for a moment, fall into that category, I will be politely asked to leave the country and take my problems with me. While I’m here and willing to contribute, they’re happy to take my money. Should I fall on hard times, however briefly, I am immediately unwelcome.

I’m actually in favour of a social safety net. I didn’t come over here to sponge on the social safety net, but it is a bitter pill to swallow when I read news stories of welfare abuse. I’m paying for it, but if I hit hard times I can’t access it myself.

These Are Not The Benefits You Were Looking For

And I won’t ever qualify. It’s not vested or gradual. That is, you don’t gradually get vested into the social safety net after you’ve paid into it for enough years. As an immigrant, I am simply never eligible for it. If I lived here legally for 50 years without taking citizenship (not sure if that’s possible), I would never be eligible.

Related to this, I can’t vote. I can pay a lot of taxes. I can buy a house. I can get as invested and involved in the community as I want. But I cannot vote for the people who will decide how my tax pounds are spent. Americans know this as “taxation without representation.” Hmmm, seems my American forebears may have felt this same grudge against the Brits. Why should “citizenship” (something that requires years of profligacy to the government and thousands of pounds of bureaucratic fees) be the qualification for voting, while physical presence (regardless of where your income comes from) is the sole qualification for paying taxes?

The UK is not alone in being illogical with immigration and taxes. The Economist article says “America’s policy of taxing its citizens wherever they live seems especially perverse; it is an accountants’ charter.” It’s one thing for me to pay taxes to the place I live, but have its benefits denied. It’s another to be compelled to pay taxes to my native land, despite being physically and logically unable to receive most of the benefits they might pay for. Perverse is a very good word for it.

What is the right answer?

Taxes should be collected just as they are. Voting rights, however, should be conferred far faster based on having a permanent address for some reasonable period (e.g., one year or two).

Fixing Voting Rights

Already, in the UK, we use things like council tax bills (analogous to American property taxes) as a proof of residence. Could this not be used as proof of residence for the purpose of voting? I.e. combine the fact that you pay taxes with the fact that your name is on a lease bearing the same property address (or on a mortgage or deed with the same property address) as a means of letting people vote. Combine that with proof of identity like a passport or UK-issued official ID and you now have a reasonable proof that person X is a legitimate tax payer AND lives in property Y. Thus, they are eligible to vote on the same issues as their neighbours. This would make politicians have to care about me, rather than treat me as a voiceless source of funds for the citizens. According to this article in the Guardian, citing 2009 numbers, there were roughly 4M foreign citizens in the UK. That’s 8 times the total membership of all political parties in the UK (according to this article). A bloc of 4M voters would be an important bloc indeed.

Vested Benefits

Public benefits should be vested over a period of time. That is, after a total of, say 30 months of contributions (not necessarily contiguous months), you become eligible to draw 6 months of benefits. After 60 months of contributions, you become eligible to draw 12 months of benefits, and so on. Maybe every 30 months of contributions grants you another 6 months of eligibility to receive. I dunno. Just musing. That’s a ratio that could be tweaked, too. Maybe it need to be 10:1 (e.g., 30 months gets you 3 months).

There’s a cost to implementing this, not just in the machinery that would need to track it, but in the cost of actually paying benefits to some set of people who become eligible. Maybe, for a fee, you register with the scheme. That helps defray the cost of implementation. (I.e., charge £100 to each immigrant who wants to be covered). But then, the government actually has to pay benefits to eligible immigrants. That’s the big problem. Right now they get this absurd input to the benefits pool by a whole class of people who have no ability to withdraw from it. It’s kinda like the way healthy people subsidise sick people in an insurance portfolio, except this class of contributors are never allowed to become beneficiaries.

Fundamentally this is an unequal and unfair system. It needs to be addressed. I’m am well aware that the reverse (Brits immigrating into the US) is no easier. But we fix things because they need fixing, not to keep up with some Joneses somewhere else in the world. This should be fixed.

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