belonging

On Borders by Lauren Elkin

I’ve just written a short piece on passports, citizenship, and border control, as part of Granta’s special feature on the refugee crisis. You can read the full contributions here.

My passport is thick with the extra pages I added a few years ago, when I ran out of room for the stamps I was accruing. An American living in France, with a partner from the UK, I frequently cross over the invisible borders between those countries that are inscribed, respectively, in the Eurostar terminals at the Gare du Nord and St Pancras. Every crossing has to be marked. I gain entrance to Britain with some difficulty, which is usually resolved upon the basis of my answers to questions like: what are you doing in our country? where do you live? where do you work? I envy my husband his sober maroon passport, which slides him across the border from one EU country to another.

On recent trips to London I’ve encountered another kind of resistance. As we hurtle unimpeded through the Pas-de-Calais region en route to London, something’s creating drag on the tracks. It’s the knowledge that somewhere out there, just to our left, or just to our right, there are three thousand people in a camp with thirty toilets, caught in administrative limbo, desperate to get to Britain. At night they try to jump onto the tops of trucks, or slip into the tunnel and try to run across, only to be caught at the British border and sent back. All of us on the train, we who have one way or another passed the test at the checkpoint in Gare du Nord, with our various passports, we speed through this place where so many others have stopped, caught.

Passports were invented at the onset of the First World War to keep track of people, slow down their movement. Sure there were safe conduct papers before that, issued by the king, or whoever, but passports as we know them came about as a result of the British Nationality and Status Aliens Act 1914, which redefined who could be considered a British subject. It took effect on 1 January 1915, and stated:

(1) The following persons shall be deemed to be natural-born British subjects, namely:

(a) Any person born within His Majesty’s dominions and allegiance; and

(b) Any person born out of His Majesty’s dominions whose father was, at the time of that person’s birth, a British subject, and who fulfils any of the following conditions, that is to say, if either—

Et cetera. My husband goes back and forth, a subject of the kingdom. I occasionally drop in, natural and adopted child of revolution, a citizen of the republic. I treasure my ability to cross. I grow angry when it’s under threat. The European Union was created to override passports, to facilitate the free circulation of people and goods between countries that decades before were eviscerating each other on the battlefield, and in the cities. In a zone without passports, it seems craven to distinguish between those who have a right to circulate freely (citizens, subjects) and those whose passports are the wrong color, or who have no papers at all. But Britain holds itself at a distance from this passport-free zone, and cracks open its doorway only to those who know the password.

On the train, seated comfortably in my second-class seat, I look out at the world streaming by, long grass, cement buildings, chain link fences, and think of the sign on the back façade of a church in Queens that I see when I’m at home, riding the Long Island Rail Road to the city: ‘Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?’ (Lamentations 1:12).

It is not nothing to those of us who pass by, our passports growing heavy with administrative ink and paper. It is not nothing to those of us who travel with lighter passports, as I will soon, now that my French citizenship has been approved and I will be issued my own slim maroon passport, the kind the customs agents look at and slide back to you, without the official pounding of the stamp.

It is not nothing to those of us moving quickly through the French countryside that there are so many waiting out there, whose daily lives, we hope, will be improved thanks to the fundraising campaigns we’re giving to, and the petitions we’re signing, and the generosity of the people who pack up their trucks full of supplies and drive to the camps, instead of past them. We would like to help any way we can, but the ultimate decisions about who goes where don’t lie with us. The people in the camps (I imagine, I read interviews, I try to understand) are waiting for more than a better quality of life in limbo. They’re waiting to be let out, to move on, and then to put their bags down somewhere, for their answers to the border questions – what are you doing in our country? where do you live? where do you work? – to be no different from those of the passengers speeding by on the endless, endless Eurostars.