Howard Croft column: Not-so-easy entry into UK – how times change

Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson

The writer Bill Bryson, an American, came to Britain as a young back-packer, met and married an English girl he took a fancy to and settled in the Yorkshire Dales where they started a family. In due course he returned to America with a view to giving his children a taste of life in America. He wrote a book, I’m a Stranger Here Myself, describing his experience of settling in an unfamiliar America, along the way making comparisons between America and the UK, some unfavourable to the UK, some not. I read this book when I was adjusting to life in America and was delighted by how like my own his experiences had been. How did we, Bill and me, cope in a country where Polyfilla is called Spackle?

He described the treatment his wife, a British citizen, had received at the hands of the American immigration officials in their London embassy with whom she had to deal. The details don’t matter; it was a horror show of incompetence, pettiness and obstructionism. He contrasted this with the treatment a friend of his had had, an English academic working in America, when he returned to the UK for a year’s sabbatical at a British university. He took with him his wife and two children, who like he had been born in Britain and – this is where it went wrong – an additional child born in America.

At Heathrow the immigration officer, having stamped the British passports, said “Now, what about the American child?” This child, strictly speaking, could not enter on a visitor’s visa as the family intended to remain for a year. The officer consulted his supervisor who granted irregular entry and advised the father quickly to register his child in Britain to regularise the situation. He turned a blind eye to the reality and focused on a more important one. Makes you proud to be British!

But hang on – times seem to have changed. An American orthopaedic surgeon who had been offered (and accepted) a job as a consultant at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in Birmingham UK (not Alabama) planned to come over here with his family: his British wife (but not British born), their biological son and two adopted sons. For some reason adopted children are differently treated for immigration purposes (not allowed a permanent visa) and they were advised by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in America that they should bring them along on visit visas, which they had done in the past when visiting, and that they could change the boys’ status once here.

At Heathrow the adopted boys were denied entry as they were on visit visas but clearly intended to remain in the country, a situation very similar to that of Bryson’s friend. The family was detained, the boys’ passports were confiscated, and they were each issued with one-way tickets to New York (their American home was in Oregon) leaving in three days. The boys are aged 10 and 12. So far so mindless. As the boys’ mother said, “The officials were seriously insisting that these young children should be separated from their family and put on an airplane which would land in a strange city in the evening where we knew no-one”.

They engaged a lawyer who secured their release and got temporary leave to remain and advised them to apply for their children to be registered as skilled worker dependent children on the basis of their father’s employment contract. They submitted forms, and a fee of £1,800, to the Home Office and the application was rejected several weeks later on the grounds that such applications could not be made from within the UK. They were then advised by their lawyer to reapply using the boys’ right to family life. The Home Office’s own deadline for responding to such applications is three months. They took ten. In the meantime the whole family could not register with a GP, get school places, get a mortgage on a house – presumably, nor could they join a library or buy lottery tickets.

The application was 
refused anyway. The letter of refusal stated that one of the parents could return to the US with the two adopted children and maintain contact with the rest of the family through email and Skype. They decided to return to America and start again from scratch. There was a delay because the Home Office had to do background checks on the children and held on to their passports, though why such checks are needed on minors leaving the country is a mystery. The situation is still unresolved.

All this at a time when 
European workers are feeling, post-BREXIT, unsettled. Am I still proud to be British? Not so much.