The little-known story of being an immigrant

There aren’t many issues you don’t need to cover at a women’s conference. Most people know that women make up over half the population of our world, but surprisingly few realize the significance of being a woman trying to get along in a world designed by and for men. Few people realize how sex impacts on just about everything women might try to do – like getting into politics, for example…

At FiLiA in Cardiff last year, I had the task of setting up a workshop on why (I believe) women need socialism. I wanted to focus on three areas: sex, race and class. Juemin Xu took on the lead speech for the race part and, listening to her, and to the discussions her talk led to, I learned a lot of things I didn’t know that I didn’t know.

The “Why Women Need Socialism” workshop discussions (photos by Christine Bradshaw)…

For one thing, you will notice in her talk (transcript below) that she underlines several times the difference between immigrants and asylum seekers, and between legal and illegal immigrants. Some people aren’t even that good at telling the difference between immigrants and people who just happen to look different.

It feels almost like pedantry to say it but, for those of us who grew up and live in the country we were born in, it’s easy to miss the way most political conversations casually conflate the very, very different experience of those groups. It is, says Juemin, one of the reasons that it’s hard for people to get a realistic view of who they are talking about when ‘immigration’ is the subject of a political debate, and even harder for politicians to realize whose voices are not being heard.

I don’t like politicians making decisions about things they don’t really understand. If you agree, please read on…


Juemin’s speech at FiliA “Why Women Need Socialism”, Cardiff, 2022

Thank you. I’m here to talk about ethnic minority views. I will start from an immigration point of view because for most people from ethnic minorities, their parents or grandparents have been first-generation immigrants. I happen to be a first-generation immigrant. I went through the whole process, so I will talk about my personal experience and the current situation, and about the experience after you get your nationality. After that, I will talk about ethnic minorities’ relationship with socialism, and other forms of socialism outside of this country.

Becoming British

The very first step is after you come here with a legal visa (ie, not as an illegal immigrant), is your lack of voting rights. You don’t have voting rights by default, it depends on where you come from. If you come from a Commonwealth or EU country, after a couple of years you count as a resident, then you probably have voting rights in local elections, but may not vote in the general elections.

The rules are different in Wales and Scotland. England is the most strict. For people like me who come from outside the EU and the Commonwealth, it generally takes 6 to 11 years to get British nationality. At that point, you would have voting rights. And so during those years, you don’t really know what political rights you have , and the politicians don’t know either. Councillors don’t know. They wouldn’t reach out to you if they knew you can’t vote, right? Immigrants are the only group apart from prisoners that have no voting rights.

[Audience]: Members of the House of Lords don’t have voting rights. (Fact check: they don’t have voting rights in the parliamentary elections. They can vote in local elections.)

That’s great! We want to upgrade from prison to the House of Lords! That’s a great step! When you are still in this probation period for your nationality, it’s like prison probation. You could have legal consequences if you want to get involved in political activities, particularly if it goes wrong. A police caution itself can set you back for two years. You could lose your good character requirement in the visa application.

Think about it, if misgendering becomes a hate crime, all those immigrants who can’t speak English well make grammar mistakes. That’s scary. In Chinese, ‘he’ and ‘she’ sound exactly the same. I often make mistakes. Lots of Chinese friends say “It used to be a grammar mistake. Now it’s a hate crime.”

We all know that immigration is a talking point in all sorts of political debates. We often feel that as immigrants, we are right in the centre of the political debates, but we have no voice because we have no voting rights. This is really difficult. All those immigration rules, you can’t influence it, and where people are influencing it, it is not for your benefit. A British passport costs 75 pounds, right? And do you, any of you, know how much it costs to apply for a permanent residency visa?

The cost of residency

It is between 1500 pounds to 3300 pounds. It depends on the size and status of your family. It’s exorbitant, and it goes up every year. Immigrants who need to apply have zero rights to say anything about it. And after all that, immigrants are often accused of either stealing jobs, or not working, and costing taxpayers’ money. These two can’t be true at the same time, right? If you are not working, you are not stealing jobs, right? How about we say it the other way round, like half of a glass full or half of a glass empty. Some immigrants are not stealing jobs. They have no right to work. They haven’t got their work permits. And some immigrants are working, they are not on taxpayers’ money. They are paying tax and they have no recourse to public funds. They only pay tax, they cannot get the public funds and, sometimes for more than ten years, they cannot vote.

Home and dry?

So finally, you get the British nationality. You have fulfilled all the legal requirements. However, there are all those cultural things that make obstacles in politics. For immigrants or the children of immigrants, there is a feeling of otherness. It’s difficult to get into politics because you don’t have connections, a family background, or role models. You don’t even know where to start. I have tried to be a parliamentary candidate a couple of times.

What I find in various constituencies is that people want somebody born and bred there, or who has lived there for a long time. People have said to me, “how about you try the place you grew up in?” I grew up in China. That’s no good to me.

Apart from that, there’s a shortage of family and friends support. In candidates’ campaign films, you often see them smiling with a row of people behind them holding placards. They can get their extended families: uncles and aunties, nephews and nieces. No-one will notice. It’s difficult for us to find so many people. So we help each other. Just yesterday I received an email saying “ohh when do you have time? Please come, you know, to stand behind me.” I said, “yes, yes, we will come.” We help each other.

Bringing a variety of ideas

Another point I want to make is from a Chinese point of view. This is probably very different for immigrants from other countries, a bit of a cultural issue. The Chinese culture is quite conformist. You are not supposed to be disobedient. You’re not supposed to be confrontational, an attribute I find is essential in a democratic society. When I grew up and my mom said, “oh, how can you have such an attitude to your parents or grandparents?” I said “they just happen to be born earlier than me. How can they be more correct than me?” I have that attitude. That is why I want to be free of the conformist culture. I want to try my luck somewhere else. That is the attitude of immigrants.

One thing common to all immigrants is that we have at least experienced another country, another social system. Immigrants’ children are often more familiar with another country than the rest of the population. They are more international.

What do *you* mean by socialism?

Now here is the question about socialism. I have asked what you mean by socialism. Socialism in this country is about social welfare, a social safety net, all these things are socialism. I have heard from other people from different backgrounds saying other things. It has been related to dictatorship. When I knocked on the doors, I heard that.

“Oh, you’re from the Labour Party. Are you like Chavez?” I said “No, no, no. We are not like that. We support this system. We support social welfare. We support scrapping the cap on Universal Credit, all these things.”

For immigrants to have a good relationship with socialism, we need to promote democracy and freedom. We are here because of the free movement of human beings. That is why I am here, and why I am able to talk to you. Now I’m in a democratic system, I can choose, or other immigrants can choose, to support socialism or other political positions.

One positive thing I want to say, since we are at Filia, is that lots of immigrant women, or women from immigrant familes are highly successful. The statistics are, in the House of Commons, there are 65 ethnic minority MPs, 37 are women. And among Labour MPs, we have 41 ethnic minority MPs and 29 are women. That is great. Free movement gives women a lot more opportunities.

Juemin Xu, FiLiA, Cardiff, 2022


Well there we have it – every idea presented by our panel was thoroughly examined and debated. What did I learn from Juemin’s contribution? That when I sit chatting about politics with someone who wasn’t born in the UK, I may well be talking to someone who has no vote – even if they’re someone I’m used to thinking of as part of the community; that if I ask them (as I often do ask people) to come along to a political meeting or demo, to join a picket line perhaps, I may be asking them to risk everything, and that when I see political candidates lined up with their supporters and think oh yes, that’s clearly a BAME group, it might just be a candidate surrounded by their friends and relations for the photo, just like all the other candidates.

Personally, I think Chavez was liking up Venezuela to be one of the most impressive examples of democracy in the world but there you go – I know what Juemin means, as I’m sure you do, and I know that most of the people you meet on the doorstep when campaigning get their ideas about international politics – and socialism – from the BBC (sigh!)

Clearly, we need a lot more political education. Especially feminist and internationalist education – a good place to get it is at FiLiA. Last year’s conference covered the obvious subjects for women, such as violence, childbirth, caring and so on, it had features about the Hague mothers, about women in film-making and sport, and much, much more, most of it with an international perspective. We had speakers from over 70 countries. FiLiA is in Glasgow this year. If that’s your part of the world, go along. It’s amazing what you learn.

Juemin is standing for election to the Labour Party Women’s Committee this year. Click here to find out why .


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