When I crossed the French border on my visa for the first time, the customs officer’s face lit up.
“Bonjour,” I said.
“A real ‘bonjour!'” he responded, remarking on my command of the language. I imagined how many times he heard that word every day, and how many variations on the pronunciation he’d seen that afternoon alone.
We talked for a minute or two about what I was doing in the country — student and au pair, on a one-year, renewable visa — and we got so caught up that he nearly forgot to stamp my entry. After months of dreading the complex and often aggressive process of becoming a temporary resident in a new country, I was almost suspicious of how easy it was. Where was the rigorous passport-checking? The humorless customs police asking me question after question about my intentions in their country? No one even read my visa, they simply asked me questions about it and stamped it on sight. I could have said anything, and it wouldn’t have mattered.
“France is really easy to get into,” I said to my friend over coffee, a few days after my arrival.
“No, it’s not,” he told me, “It just is for you.”
I felt somewhat offended by the implication as, in the beginning, I was pretty smug in my ability to move through the country with ease. After all, I had taken care of my paperwork well in advance, had shown up early for all of my medical exams and questionnaires, and took the process very seriously. I would look down on my fellow immigrants who had not bothered — and I imagined it was universally a question of effort — to learn the language. “It’s easy for me because I’m bilingual,” I would say to people, “Not because of who I am.” And that was undoubtedly part of it. But when I dropped out of school, stopped being an au pair, and started the paperwork process to change my resident card from “student” to “visitor,” I realized that I simply got to see a different version of things than, say, the young Congolese immigrant (for whom French was his first language) who had just finished his Master’s at a French school and was trying to transition into job with a French company.
The way it works, in theory, is simple. You have the visa, which is the paper that allows you to enter the country and apply for your resident card. Then you have the cards themselves, which are your real paperwork for the duration of your stay. There are different kinds of cards, like student, worker, or visitor (which was for long-term residents like myself who did not work for a French company). And normally, if your ducks are in a row — in my case, I had to prove my earnings and residence in order to qualify — you should be able to go through the process without complication. But this is real life, and it’s a bureaucracy which encompasses millions of visitors, residents, and transitional workers every year. From the time I initially applied for my resident status change, to the time I left, the following things happened:
1. I moved twice, and once changed zonings so that all of my paperwork had to be transferred to the new prefecture, and then back again to the old one.
2. I was initially told to apply for a worker visa, and went through the entire process for that resident card, only to find out that the person handling my case had misunderstood that my company was neither based in nor taxed in France.
3. I re-started the application process for a visitor card, and had about a four-month window between the time that my application was filled and the time that I actually received an appointment with a case worker to go over my papers.
4. I found out that I was going to be leaving France, and requested a stop on my application proceedings, as I would no longer need the new card.
5. I was informed that my case had not even yet been opened, as it was “low priority.”
For the last two years of my stay, I had only my temporary papers which told authorities that I was waiting for my real card to be filed and given to me. I never actually received my official visitor resident card. And in many ways, I understand this: I was the kind of immigrant that a country doesn’t care about. I was not taking a French job, I was not using French social programs, and I was spending money actively in their country. I had a bank account, an apartment, and bills I paid on time. Regardless of how fast they addressed my individual case — and it could have taken years — they only stood to benefit from my presence. But there were also many things about my case that should have raised red flags: I had dropped out of school, I had left my French job, I was working as a writer with multiple sources of income, and I had changed residences twice in two years. Unlike the aforementioned Congolese student (or Moroccan, or Vietnamese, or Colombian) who had painstakingly gone through the French school system and was now being sponsored in their paperwork by an established French company, I had not done everything the “right” way.
And it became more and more apparent, as I spent time in immigration offices, that very little had to do with “right” or “wrong.” There were the families trying to manage their two small children while they all renewed their visas. There were the new immigrants who had not yet mastered the language and had to tearfully gesticulate in protest to their being abruptly sent home. There were the studious 20-somethings who had done everything the perfect way — graduated with flying colors — but who happened to be from a country that was not on terribly good terms with France at the moment. They would not get their papers, it often turned out, and would have to go back home to start the visa process all over again at a distance.
Never once in my years as a foreign resident did I really feel like one. French authority figures — bankers, policemen, landlords, rental agents, security guards — all treated me with deference and patience. And while part of my ease in moving about stemmed from the fact that I was American (a country which does not require a visa to enter France, and can travel freely for up to 90 days on passport alone), it also undoubtedly had to do with the way I looked. I was a young, middle-class white woman who dressed professionally and was automatically coded as “non-threatening.” My “low priority” status when it came to my paperwork contained in it the implication that I was not a danger, that I would not commit crime, and that my presence would affirm France’s embrace of immigration while still looking enough like a French person to not upset the right-wing vote. While Arabs and Africans in Europe are often cast as undesirable or inherently dangerous, a young white woman coming to your country to write and spend money is the kind of immigrant you want to support.
I always did my paperwork and kept up with my appointments because I took it seriously, but I knew several Americans (who had little command of French) who came and went from France as they pleased. They spent money, they worked freelance, they figured it out as they went. They often stumbled their way into long-term papers, but sometimes they didn’t. It never stopped them, though, from renting an apartment, getting a phone, opening up a bank account, or generally melding into French society with little complaint. While many immigrants are stuck in the catch-22 of not being able to get a residence until they get their ID, and vice versa, a rental agent looks at your appearance — and your bank statement, maybe — and is happy to find you a lease. Never once in my time in France were my papers looked at, even though I had them on me nearly at all times. I partied, I drank, I did stupid things, but I never feared for my immigration status. It was a luxury that I often didn’t even realize I was afforded.
The perfect immigrant is not a set of actions. It’s not going to this school, or that internship, or showing up on time for everything. It is not about preparing yourself for a new stage in your life and treating everything with a measure of respect and caution, although that helps. Being the perfect immigrant means having money before you go, it means not having children if possible, it means looking a certain way and always buttoning up your cardigan when you’re talking to someone important. The thing about immigration is that it’s a long, tedious, goalpost-moving journey, but it’s one whose outcome is mostly decided before you ever board the plane.