Border Crossing — Part I

[originally authored 25-26 April 2012]

At the Exeter Political Geography conference earlier this week (see my earlier post), Jo Sharp defined me as a “real” political geographer by noting that I was a “borders person.”  I’d never really thought of myself that way, but I am a border crosser, and, I guess I’m enough of a “border person” that I’m right now consumed with thoughts of how borders are reinscribing me as a geopolitical subject and how, conversely, my interactions with borders reinforce their meaning.  Or, to quote the very recently deceased anthropolgist Steve Rubenstein, “The movement of things across a boundary signals not its failure but its success,” a point that he developed in a 2001 article in Society & Space and that has gone on to inspire much of my own work in the meaning of lines and borders on maps, particularly in maritime space.

Raw material from Phil Steinberg’s Tier 2 UK visa application

So, what does it take to cross (and simultaneously reinscribe) a border?  The photo shows the collection of documents that I’ll be posting to the British consulate in New York later today as part of my application for a Tier 2 (skilled worker) visa.  With a few exceptions (e.g. footballers who are temporarily in the UK who’ve been recruited to play for a UK team), Tier 2 visa applicants must apply from their home country.  In my case, since I was in the UK until 24 hours ago, I had to cross a border to get permission to be a border crosser.  Are you confused yet?

Returning to the photo, the documents, starting at the left and moving clockwise, are:

  1. My current US passport.
  2. A statement from Wells Fargo (my bank in the US) asserting that I have £800 to support me until my first paycheck comes through (in June this threshold gets raised to £900).
  3. The actual application.  I previously submitted this online, together with a  £480 fee, but after submitting the online form applicants are also required to print out the application and enclose a copy with their supporting documents.
  4. A photocopy of the photo page from my current passport.
  5. My previous passport (see the holes on the right, which were put there by the US State Department when they canceled it when issuing me my current passport).
  6. A letter confirming my appointment to have biometric data taken (this will be stamped when the data is taken).  I’ll have more to say about this in my next post.
  7. Two copies of a letter from Royal Holloway, University of London affirming my status there and, most importantly, noting my Certificate of Sponsorship number.
  8. The receipt affirming that I paid an additional $150 for ‘priority service’ (more on this below).
  9. Two passport-size photos (one of these will become embedded in my visa which, in turn, will be embedded in my passport).
  10. A detailed list of all my overseas travels taken over the past ten years.

The lesson from this is not simply that visa applications are a lot of work (although they are) and cost a lot of money (although they do).  I’m well aware that in the world of academic mobility I’m relatively privileged and that mobility is even more constrained for less-skilled workers (for instance, the UK Border Agency tier for less-skilled migrants — Tier 3 — has been abolished).  Rather than harping on the burdens of the process, though, I’d like to focus on what some of the details that I’m encountering daily tell us about borders, how they’re constructed, and how they construct both the border-crosser and the bordered-resident.

In today’s ‘border post’ (sorry about the pun!), I want to hone in on that ‘priority service’ document (document 8 in the above list).  The $150 ‘priority service’ payment wasn’t made to the UK Border Agency.  It was made to WorldBridge, a company that does visa application processing for UK consulates around the world (it performs a similar service for Australian consulates in France, Jordan, and Lebanon, and for the German consulate in Qatar).  WorldBridge, in turn is a division of the New York Stock Exchange-listed CSC, a Virginia-based 98,000-employee corporation which describes itself as “a leading global consulting, systems integration and outsourcing company,” with operations in 90 countries.  Much of CSC’s business involves providing IT support to public sector agencies that wish to privatize service delivery functions, a move that is typically promoted on the grounds of improving efficiency or customer satisfaction but whose most direct effect is often a decline in the strength of public sector trade unions, especially in the US.  In countries where the CSC workforce is unionized, including the UK and Denmark, the company’s own labor management practices have been challenged.

What does that extra $150 that I paid to WorldBridge get me?  For $150, WorldBridge, which manages the queue at the British consulate in New York (where all US-based visa applications are processed) but doesn’t involve itself in the actual evaluation of applications, will move me to the top of the queue.   This will ensure that under ‘normal circumstances‘ my application will be considered within 48 hours of receipt (not including weekends or public holidays).  Is the $150 worth it?  It’s impossible to know.  In February 2012, 91% of all Tier 2 applications received at the consulate in New York were processed in three days, but it’s not clear if all of these applicants paid for priority service.  Since WorldBridge manages the queue and they have an interest in making the $150 supplement worthwhile to the applicant, they have an incentive in being particularly slow with non-priority applications.  Having thought this through and acknowledging the power dynamics of the situation (they have it; I don’t), paying the extra $150 seemed like a good idea.  Come to think of it, given those power dynamics, keeping this blogpost off the web might be a good idea.  So, although I’m writing it just before getting my biometrics taken and submitting the application (26 April) I’ll hold off on posting it until after the visa’s been issued.

Aside from the fact that WorldBridge is encouraging potential migrants to Britain to engage in a most un-British behaviour – queue-jumping — what are we to make of the fact that border control — arguably one of the “purest” of state functions — is itself being outsourced?  There are obvious parallels between this and the outsourcing of military services to private contractors (most notably done by the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan).  There’s a significant literature on the ways in which border crossers and border dwellers simultaneously reaffirm and question the sanctity of state boundaries and state identities, but there’s considerably less research on how this dual message is also given by those who police the border (but, for exceptions, see some of the contributions to the Volume 16, number 1 (2011) and Volume 17, number 2 (2012) special issues of Geopolitics).  Just as border policing is being spatially displaced to locations both outside the territory (see, for instance, works by Luiza Bialasiewicz) and inside the territory (see, for instance, works by Mat Coleman), the institutions of bordering are similarly being reworked.

I’ll have more to say on this in my next post on this blog.

Phil S.

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3 thoughts on “Border Crossing — Part I

  1. Pingback: Border Crossing – Part III « rhulgeopolitics

  2. Pingback: Border Crossing – Part III «

  3. Pingback: The Third Annual RGS Political Geography Conference « rhulgeopolitics

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