Friday, 15 May 2009
The Trial at Lunar House
After many weeks of gathering documents from my Faculty and my bank, sending inane emails to various administrators and finally* filling out a 55-page form, I headed down to the Public Enquiry Office of Immigration & Border Control in Croydon (South of London) yesterday to extend my student visa. The six hours spent in public transport was uncomfortable, but the experience really came to its own inside Lunar House itself, the 1970s government building shown in the photograph above. As I followed that first painted red line out the front leading to security check, I had no clue just how fitting the name - a nod to the moon landings - would be.
The operation kicked off by lining up to have bags scanned, lining up to have documents checked and approved and a case number given, being directed upstairs, having paperwork checked at bottom of stairs and top of stairs, and lining up to have documents checked again and to pay the £565 fee. It then meant joining over a hundred other people (and their bored, grizzly kids) on rows of blue plastic chairs bolted in to face a long line of glass booths, booths which were designed to shield the case workers from us slipshod foreigners. The security staff (dotted every 10 metres) was clearly straight from the set of EastEnders: cheeky, thick necked, balding young guys and white-blond, throaty, older women with frosty make up.
As I sat on a sticky chair, numbers were called out every few seconds by automation. Often different recordings called out over the top of each other. Orange numbers flashed from squares above each booth while the position and progress of our numbers were depicted in a separate visual display. The only other form of entertainment was a slide show of the Border Control's policies and procedures, with the same messages (about their staff not tolerating abuse and their disability facilities) being earnestly read out over and over by alternating people, each representing the various categories of race, gender, religion and age.
After a good 40 minutes (well over an hour since arrival), my number was called. I sat down in front of the young case worker. The applicants' chairs had been bolted a good foot or so back from what would be a natural distance from the counter. This meant we all had to lean forward awkwardly, over-extending our backs, essentially putting our chins or two hands on the counter to hold on. I placed my materials through the chute as directed. Case worker silently looked at them. I stared at the 'panic attack' red button in the middle of a grey box to the right of the case worker. It took me to the control room of 1970s sci-fi movies and I thought I heard the distinct sounds of David Bowie singing Space Oddity. Caseworker typed some things, stamped stuff and then politely told me to take a seat.
I waited over an hour. Little kids started to wail and run and hit their heads on the corners of the seats and wail even more loudly. Some parents tried to sleep on each other. My number was called again and 'they' took my biometric details - digital prints and a photo - for these new biometric ID cards, a scheme that originated, more or less, after the London bombings in 2005. (Now I am here, I couldn't really object, could I?) I plopped back down and stared for an hour and a half. I tried to do some work, but laptops were forbidden and the air was stale. I also forgot to eat, mesmerised by my number flashing on screen, slowly advancing to the front of each electronic queue.
I should be fair, there were some high points, a couple of moments of fuzziness when I sensed that we - applicants from different parts of the world, of different colours and creeds - were all facing this Kafkaesque doorkeeper together. Overhearing the husky security ladies share suggestive jokes and provide nurturing pieces of advice also made me smile.
For several minutes I watched my number sit at the top of the 'case consideration' stream. My number was called and I sat in front of a different case worker. Case worker followed a very similar procedure: checked my forms and passport, typed in my details. She then informed me that my application would have to be sent downstairs to be vertified again because of an internal audit process and that I would have to wait another two hours minimum. Without thinking too much, I calmly told her that I would be hopping on a bus back to Oxford rather than waiting any more (my dwindling mind was fixated on one thing: getting back for a talk by Richard Dawkins) and asked if they would please send my passport to me as and when. Caseworker said, 'But what if you have to come back down because they need you to bring something extra?' I said that given that I had already made it through at least three, possibly seven, checks here today, I was willing to take that risk. She then said she would see if she could get my application looked at by 'floor one' sooner. I thanked her and resumed my spot on sticky seat.
I watched a case worker in the booth next to mine tell a Chinese couple that they would have to wait another 2 hours minimum, which they accepted, deflated. Brushing off concerns about whether or not I was a brat for holding myself to ransom, I made my way outside, determined to inhale some air from this century. Nevertheless, leaving the building also meant having to go through security and checks again so, I would say to others, it is only just about worth it.
While I waited another 30 minutes, I filled out a feedback card. My two suggestions were that the security staff be given greater role diversity or responsibility as their boredom was making them jumpy and erratic and that the case workers be trained to display some sense of awareness of just how long and dull the process is as their neutral and sometimes sharp expressions were hard to take after 4 hours+ of waiting in one room. I was called and reunited with my beloved passport. My application for an extension of my student visa had been approved.
Just to tie up the blogging proceedings (and I thank you for joining me), I think my final few minutes at Lunar House were symbolic. As I left the booth for the final time, I announced to a few people still waiting, 'It can be done, Ladies and Gentlemen. This process does have a finish, I assure you.' They were all pretty much dribbling by this time and I had no takers. I pranced over to the tired kiosk and immediately spotted the gold of a Crunchie being shown off by the plastic-wrapped beige chicken rolls. I took out my pennies, ready to get some honeycomb goodness. With the giddy enthusiasm of someone being found not-guilty and facing the press outside the court or of someone leaving prison after being wrongly accused, I trumpetted, 'I am treating myself to a celebratory Crunchie, how much are they?' The heavily-lined lady (who I had heard being pretty funny earlier in the day) replied, without moving any of her face, 'I am about to change the till, you will have to come back in 15 minutes.' I said, 'Can I please just leave you the money as I am finally on my way out.' She said, 'No.' I said, 'OK, well I guess I'll be going then.' She croaked, 'Suit yourself.'
*If you're interested in the form filling process which involved visiting the student advisory service here in Oxford, please let me know. I can share a wonderful email my boyfriend sent me to make me feel better about my apparent failures on this front.