Testimony from film-maker Meghan Horvath

The film-maker Meghan Horvath has written a beautiful and moving testament about the uncertainties of her visa situation – an excellent combination of personal narrative and the de-humanising facts of bureaucratic points-based scoring…

You could say exploring the world beyond my own is in my genes. My grandfather, with his mother and his accordion, caught the last open wave of immigration from Eastern Europe to America in the 1920s. His name is engraved on a wall on Ellis Island, New York City, which was once the bustling welcoming centre for all those who braved the journey across the ocean. And so I grew up in America with the sense that a part of me was also elsewhere.
Many years later in late 2005 I eventually found my way to London after winning a scholarship to do a masters degree at the London School of Economics. I had been working in New York City as a documentary film producer on American historical films, but craved something broader. I wanted a different geographical base from which to look out onto the world. I wanted to be part of a bigger conversation, one that did not always begin and end with America.

At the LSE I completed a masters programme called Imperialism, Colonialism and Globalisation where I read and thought about the Roman and British empires, the Soviet Union and the source and nature of American power. It was a truly global education, in a global city, in the company of colleagues from around the world.
After my graduation I decided to make a go of having a life in the UK. Why not? I enjoyed living in England and although not looking for a better life, I was indeed looking for a different one. I guess you could say I am a different type of ‘migrant’, one that does not fit into the categories discussed regularly in the British newspapers.

For me living and working in the UK has enriched my practice as a filmmaker as I’ve had a wider exposure to histories, mentalities and geographies. I am part of a wider tradition of filmmakers now, not solely confined to the boundaries of my own country. I have been inspired by discussions and collaborations with filmmakers from around the world. And I know I would not have been able to achieve as a director as much in America as I have here. Since finishing my masters degree I have directed 3 films – one of which was broadcast on Channel 4 and one of which won an award at a London-based film festival. I am now completing a fourth. To me there is simply more support for the arts in the UK compared to America, however the flip side is that the environment for non-EU artists living and working here is challenging and never stable. To the UK Border Agency there are only two categories: EU citizens and non-EU citizens.
The joy of being an artist is that taking risks is implicit in one’s practice. There really is no status quo. Every project feels completely new with all the accompanying feelings of excitement and fear. As an artist you are in it for the long-haul and in that sense it is as much as – if not more – a way of life rather than simply a career choice. Artists are always working. There are no clear hours, no clear beginnings and no clear ends.

But ironically a steady stream of money is never guaranteed. A friend who works in finance was surprised my income had not steadily climbed each year since I started working. As an artist there are boom years and there are bust years. And in my time in the UK I have had to do various jobs to make ends meet. But now that my career here is starting to feel established I am in the peculiar situation of having to do various jobs not just to make ends meet but to meet the income criteria for my upcoming visa renewal.

Here’s why. Since deciding to stay in the UK to live and work I have had two different visas (‘Highly Skilled Migrants’ and ‘Tier 1 General’), both of which are points-based. What does this mean? It means that one must earn 75 points to have a successful application and one earns the bulk of their points in two categories – age and income.

People find it surprising when I explain the points system more explicitly. In fact a lot of my British friends have confessed that they would not chalk up enough points to be able to settle here. To spell out what I think is the absurdity of the points system for artists or for anyone working in the creative sector I will give a few examples of what is required: (NB: the points table below is only for those who had their first leave to remain before 6th April 2010, as unfortunately the table is more difficult for those who have received their first leave after that date).

• Do you have a bachelor’s degree? If yes, earn 30 points
• Do you have a master’s degree? If yes, earn 35 (but you can’t earn the 30 points for the bachelor’s as well)
• Are you under 28 years of age? If yes, earn 20 points
• Are you 28 or 29 years of age? If yes, earn 10 points
• Are you 30 or 31 years of age? If yes, earn 5 points
• Are you 32 or older? No points
• Was £16,000 of your earnings in the last 12 consecutive months made in the UK? If yes, earn 5 points

The remaining points you need to have 75 must be earned in the income category. If your income is:

• £16,000 – 17,999.99 – Earn 5 points
• £18,000 – £19,999.99 – Earn 10 points
• £20,000 – £22,999.99 – Earn 15 points
• £23,000 – £25,999.99 – Earn 20 points
• £26,000 – 28,999.99 – Earn 25 points
• £29,000 – 31,999.99 – Earn 30 points
• £32,000 – £34,999.99 – Earn 35 points
• £35,000 – 39,999.99 – Earn 40 points
• £40,000 or more – Earn 45 points

Clearly this points-based system favours the young and/or those who have jobs with international corporations. As an artist this visa category was my only option when I first applied because until recently there was no special visa category for emerging artists, only one for artists who were fairly established with awards like the Booker or Oscar under their belts.

In many respects America is a closed country. It is incredibly difficult to obtain a visa to go there and work and when friends and colleagues compare the UK and America’s biggest cities, they say London is by far more cosmopolitan than New York.

But will it stay so? If the government’s agenda to cut net migration (the number of people who come to Britain more than the number of people who’ve left) from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands by 2015 is successful, the landscape of Britain would change remarkably. In my mind the obvious question in response to this points-based system is: What kind of society do we want? I think it’s an incredibly relevant one in light of the upheavals around the world in 2011 as it seems the concepts of society and citizenship seem to be at the forefront of many minds.

Continuing this restrictive points-based system will no doubt shape British society because it favours non-EU migrants in the commercial sector while closing the door on those in the arts. And what will that look like over time?

My visa expires on 4th April 2012 at which time I will apply for ‘indefinite leave to remain.’ At that point I will have been in the UK for exactly 6.5 years. The UK is my home. To leave now would be unsettling.

In February I will pay £50 to take the ‘Life in The UK Test’ prior to my application. In early April I will pay £1350 (£378 of which is so I can have a decision made in 24 hours, otherwise the UK Border Agency could hold my passport for up to 3 months while my case is being decided).

It looks as though I am on course for making my income target, thus earning my required 75 points, but this has only been possible because I have taken on 3 jobs in the past year. Needless to say I look forward to the day when I can concentrate solely on filmmaking, without the burden of having to make money.

My situation is just one example of how the government’s aim to control migration is affecting the lives of individuals who are here legally (and with no legal right to public funds), who pay taxes, and who make a cultural contribution to society through their work. No doubt there are many others who could tell a similar story.

I hope one day in the near future the government will not dictate how much money one has to earn in order for non-EU artists to continue living and working in the United Kingdom. Because at the moment it is nearly impossible.