"I have never welcomed the weakening of family ties by politics or pressure" - Nelson Mandela.
"He who travels for love finds a thousand miles no longer than one" - Japanese proverb.
"Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence." - Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
"When people's love is divided by law, it is the law that needs to change". -
David Cameron.

Thursday 29 January 2015

Liberal Democrats and family immigration

As we head closer to the General Election, BritCits last week approached all the major parties (and many of the  major minor ones) for their commitment, pledge, policy - call it what you like - on immigration, especially family immigration.  Our write-up on Labour's proposal can be found here.  We are still awaiting for a response from Labour on how they intend to review the rules for elderly relatives, on which they have recently, sadly, been silent.  However we remain positive that a response is forthcoming.

In this post we include a response written exclusively for BritCits by Julian Huppert, MP for Cambridge, and his fantastic team, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, to whom we extend our sincere gratitude.  In all our dealings, I have found them to be prompt, fair and straightforward - personal opinion of course, but there are too many politicians out there, including my own MP, who could learn a thing or two from Julian and his team, on what working for the people really entails. 

However, the aim of these posts is not to provide parties with a platform to bash each other, as frankly, none of the three major parties is blameless for the mess that is UK family immigration rules.  The rules were brought in by a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, unhindered by Labour, on 9 July 2012, with less than a month's notice.  Since then, the UKIP hate-vortex has whipped those who prefer to be blindly led into an unfounded frenzy, just to promote an anti-EU agenda.

Politicians should be urged to remember their job is not only to represent voters, but that they have a professional and moral obligation to present us with facts, not convenient political spin, half-truths and sometimes blatant lies.  In any other profession, such behaviour would be met with disqualification, financial penalties and loss of job!  Staying silent in the face of the public being led astray for fear of public recrimination is almost as bad. 

Until recently, no party has steadfastly held up the pro-family flag where it involves the dirty 'i' word, 'immigration'.  The devastation wreaked on families because of the rules and how they are applied is well documented on our site, by other organisations and the media, and even in the MM case, at the Court of Appeal last March. 

It is thus heartening to see Lib Dem acknowledging the income threshold for sponsorship of a partner is too high.  More from them on what level of threshold, in any, would be fair is welcome, other changes in the application of the rules, as well as commentary on the requirement for foreign partners from select countries to achieve a certain level in the English language.  Would the best place to learn English not be surrounded by those who speak it, with the support of your British partner and children?

The Lib Dem proposal to review the rules for elderly/adult dependant relatives is particularly welcomed and much needed.  I'm not sure whether even Julian understands what a farce the ADR rules are, with the British Medical Association stating that we are losing NHS-trained doctors to countries like Canada and Singapore with family friendly immigration policies.

The super visa proposed by Lib Dems to replicate the Canadian system is a fantastic addition, and would meet the requirements of many elderly relatives who do not wish to settle in the UK, but do not want to be constrained to six months.

Julian's response is included below unedited - save for my putting in bold the sections relating to family immigration: 

“Immigration has massively benefited the UK. We are richer, culturally and economically, as a result of those who migrate to study, work and play in our country. More fundamentally even, we are a nation of immigrants – migrants have come to our country over centuries, and we should embrace this heritage as an essential part of our national identity.
In today’s political climate, it is deeply unfortunate that my party seems to be the only one willing to stand up for migrants and their rights. The Tories are running scared of UKIP – that is why they increasingly scaremonger and talk about getting ‘tough on immigration’, which massively ignores the fact that migration benefits us all. Their proposal to introduce a net migration target below 100,000 was absurd. That is why we told the Tories it would never form part of the coalition agreement.
Labour are sadly also following that race to the bottom, boasting about their ‘tough new approach on immigration’. They know how toxic that is to many of their supporters, and perhaps that is why briefings from their party headquarters tell candidates they should “avoid talking about immigration”. It was left to us to take on UKIP last May, with Nick Clegg the only party leader prepared to challenge the xenophobic message coming from Nigel Farage.
I am proud my party stands up for and will continue to stand up for the rights of immigrants. But to do this, we need to have a competent system that allows us to know who is here and who isn’t, and that can deal competently with visa applications. The failures of the Home Office, then UKBA, have understandably led to a catastrophic loss of trust in the system, and that is partly responsible for the current toxic level of debate. Labour scrapped exit checks, so we had no idea who had stayed in the country illegally, and who had left as they said they intended to. We are working on reintroducing those checks, so our policies can be based on actual evidence of what is happening.
Partly because of this chaos, Labour let too many people come in illegally. They made it hard for people to get here legally, and treated many asylum seekers very badly, but they did far less about those who were prepared to break the law to get here. I’m pleased we’ve closed down serious loopholes, such as the bogus colleges that were operating. We should encourage and support legal migration, not encourage people to behave illegally.
And we should treat people decently when they are here. Labour detained huge numbers of children for immigration purposes at the infamous Yarl’s Wood Family Unit - 7,000 children in their last 5 years, for months on end in some cases. Thanks to Lib Dem pressure, that is no longer the case. However, we still have too many elements of the inhuman ways people were treated - such as the Azure card scheme, which forces vulnerable people to buy essential goods from only a select few shops and the ban on asylum seekers working, even if they have been waiting over 6 months for a response from the Home Office. We should want these people, many of whom are very skilled, to work, and we should expect them to seek work.
As I wrote at the beginning, the benefits of immigration wholly outweigh the costs and, frankly, we need migrants. Without them, we’d be short of doctors and nurses, business experts and investors, just to name a few. 1 in 7 companies were set up by immigrants, employing huge numbers of people.
As Liberal Democrats, we firmly believe in the right to family life. Unfortunately there are many migrants in the UK who are separated from their loved ones. This causes a lot of misery and pain – our aim should be to allow family union wherever possible whilst also ensuring the system is watertight to abuse.
Changes to rules meant that people needed an income of £18,600 to bring a family member in (more with children), and this has caused too much anguish. We think that figure has to be revisited. Indeed, given that 47% of the UK population would fail to meet this threshold, it can hardly be reasonable to expect migrants to meet it, especially when the income from the migrant isn’t counted. That is why we are calling for the Migration Advisory Committee to re-consider the income tax threshold level.
Over a number of years, rules have also been tightened on elderly dependent relatives coming to the UK. Now the rules are so tight that elderly dependent relatives can only come to our country if they aren’t able at all to receive care in their home country. This goes too far. As long as elderly relatives can be supported by their family members and will not be a drain on the NHS, they should be able to come to this country. This sets the right balance between helping divided families come together and not overburdening the taxpayer.
There are also very serious problems with short-term visits. The Home Office are often far too slow-moving in granting visas – families who want to unite to meet for occasions like weddings and funerals often face unnecessary frustrations. This must change. To improve speed of decisions, we want to use a new system developed in Croydon and roll it out nationally. In Croydon, a face to face visa application service using a PEO model has proved itself to be very efficient. Decisions also need to be better quality. Hence why we are proposing new standards for immigration officers who should be recruited as skilled professionals rather than as administrators. Finally, we want improved training programmes for them.
A final Lib Dem proposal is our grandparents’ “super visa”. One problem we currently have is that foreign grandparents can’t visit their families for long periods of time. Canada has introduced an extended tourist visa for people in those circumstances. Liberal Democrats want to follow lead by making changes to introducing a grandparents’ super visa, allowing grandparents to visit for up to 2 years on condition of an actuarially-calculated health levy.
Liberal Democrats are the party that will stand up for migrants. We have done very important work to tighten up on problems which Labour left us with. But we know much more needs to be done to help divided families. Migrants come here to contribute and help all of us – but the system at present is letting many down by not allowing them to unite with relatives. If we are in coalition again, we will fight to do everything we can to overcome this. We are the only party that wants to and can deliver for migrants.”

Julian Huppert, MP for Cambridge

Wednesday 28 January 2015

Darren & Kelly - Featured Family

“I feel completely ashamed to be British.”

Darren, a British citizen, is an only child.  Darren worked from the age of 16 until his mid 30s, when he was assailed by health issues.  Now Darren looks after his elderly parents, both of whom worked all the way up until retirement, whilst also dealing with his own medical issues which present a constant struggle.  Darren’s grandfather fought in WWI and two of his uncles fought in WWII, for freedom and against tyranny.  Yet this family is left feeling terrorised on a daily basis by their own government, only because Darren fell in love with Kelly, from USA.

Kelly has had a rough childhood, and while it’s not easy for Kelly to admit this about her family, counselling has helped her confront her demons.

Kelly was abused and even raped, by her own family who defines themselves as ‘born again spirit-filled Christians’, but have been fanatical in their treatment of ‘non-believers’ like Kelly who was not allowed to go to school, and for the first 28 years of her life, virtually locked up as a means of forcing her to conform to her family’s beliefs.  Kelly did involve the police who advised her to stay away from her family and having met Darren online, the rest as they say is history. 

US remains a place where Kelly does not feel safe.  She not only has no friends to whom she can turn for support, having been locked up as a child, her family have made threats that they will locate her wherever in the country she is.  Whether true or not, the threat alone has terrified Kelly of being imprisoned once again.

So Kelly came to the UK as a visitor for Darren.  Once here, returning to the US was not an option – there was no one there to go back to and Darren’s family welcomed Kelly with open arms. 

Once here, Kelly contacted the UKBA to explore her options, following which in December 2013, Kelly, Darren and his mum went together to Asylum Screening Unit in Croydon where Kelly was advised to claim asylum in light of her family situation and submit her passport.  A lot of confusion followed with the Border Agency unclear as to their own requirements.  When Kelly was interviewed by a Home Office representative who later on claimed they were a caseworker, Kelly’s solicitor remarked that the responses were cut short, the religious persecution Kelly was exposed to in the cult environment glossed over and there were clear omissions in the report from the actual interview.  Due process was not followed.

In April 2014, whilst attending the regular appointment to have her asylum papers signed, Kelly was detained and sent to Yarl’s Wood without any warning or reasons, despite Home Office being aware of Kelly’s fragile mental state and ongoing counselling.  This was eleven days before the couple was due to be married; everything was booked: venue, gown, cake, flowers etc.  The wedding day was cancelled.  

Home Office stated Kelly had not provided any evidence of her experience – but Kelly asks how could she have submitted this when she had never been allowed to?  At each interview she was told evidence would need to be given at a later time.

At Yarl’s Wood, Kelly was constantly told she could leave detention only if she volunteered to return to the US.  She was told that otherwise once they deported her, she would not be allowed in the UK for 10 years – a time period so long, it would render the couple biologically unable to have children; by voluntarily returning, she may just be able to return to the UK sooner.  There was no concern for what Kelly had been through, her reasons for claiming asylum and what her life would be like at the hands of her family back in the US.  The goal appeared to be to put sufficient pressure on the detainees to force to them ‘choose’ to leave the UK.

Kelly was held at Yarl’s Wood for over a month.  A messy battle was necessary to get her out of there, and that too on bail.  The couple did manage to go ahead with their plans to marry but continue to face a traumatic and expensive legal battle to allow Kelly to live in the UK with her husband. 

Home Office has decided Kelly no longer falls under asylum seeker rules, but the standard family immigration rules and the family is in the middle of appealing to the courts.  Meanwhile, Kelly is terrified she will be sent to Yarl’s Wood again.  The arguments made against Kelly being allowed to remain in the UK involve suggesting Darren leave the UK, with no regard for who will look after Darren’s parents, or the statement from a doctor that without the medical care Darren receives in the UK, his own lifespan will be shortened. 

Home Office states as part of their refusal that Darren and his family are not Kelly’s real family as they’re not blood relatives; that the couple can continue their relationship online; that no one in Darren’s family earns money.  All factoring in to their reason for refusal. 

They seem to not understand that financial situation does not factor in to an asylum claim, that Darren’s parents are elderly, that Kelly has not claimed any benefits and that as Darren receives a Disability Living Allowance, his spouse would in fact be exempt from the financial requirements anyway. There is no regard for Kelly’s occupation as a musician and writer, not only would she be working and paying taxes, but under UK immigration rules she’d have no recourse to public funds.  There is complete disregard for Darren’s health issues – leaving the UK would mean he would not be able to afford the testosterone injections thus hindering the couple’s chances of having a family, Darren’s parents becoming grandparents.  Leaving the UK would mean Darren’s quality of life would reduce, his bones would become brittle without the injections.  Doctors have even said cessation of the injections would shorten Darren’s longevity.  Home Office does not understand or does not care.

All this family wants is to be left alone to recover and move forward, yet the Home Office seems determined to spend an exorbitant amount of taxpayers money in what feels to this family like deliberate malice.

A message from Kelly:

What I feel makes this particularly unjust is that one of the reasons the Home Office give for removing the ‘unwanted’ is to prevent a burden on the tax payer. I would like to point out that through all of this I have never once claimed a penny from this state and never had any (or would have any) intentions of doing so. And yet, in detaining me, not only have the Home Office placed severe financial stress on my husband and his family, but on the taxpayer themselves as my detainment has been completely unjustified. It has cost everyone more money in the time I was detained than in all the months leading up to, and since then. Who at this point is causing unnecessary burden to the taxpayer?”

Monday 26 January 2015

Lizzie & Alexander - Featured Family

"We feel fortunate but I remember how hard it was to get here and wish the best of luck to those struggling against these rules.  I hope they find a way to battle on, to not give up; I hope these rules change."
Lizzie is a British citizen living in Devon. Her husband Alexander, is a doctor from Ecuador.  They lived together for four and a half years in Chile, two years of which they were married for.

They married in June 2011 in UK, in Lizzie’s local church, before returning to Chile where Lizzie worked as a financial consultant and Alexander eventually as a consulting doctor.  Their daughter was born in February 2012 following which they decided to relocate to UK to be close to Lizzie’s family and ensure their daughter benefited from a British education.  NHS is also looking to fill 2000 GP accident and emergency vacancies. By Lizzie’s side is a GP desperate for the chance to be with his family, integrate and contribute to the NHS and save British lives. If only he were so allowed.

They submitted Alexander’s application in November 2012 and then, nothing. No emails, no calls, no news.  In February 2013, Lizzie and her daughter came to UK expecting Alexander would follow soon.  In March 2013, Lizzie complained about the delay to WorldBridge. The response, a refusal.  The couple has been apart for several months already. Father and daughter have been apart for the same length of time.  The family is missing out on sharing precious ‘first’ moments which can never return.

What makes the situation worse is that Lizzie’s income in Chile combined with cash savings, actually meets UKBA’s financial requirement. Yet UKBA manufactured a reason to refuse, stating Lizzie had not continued employment for the six month period prior to the application since her income was from maternity payments i.e. that maternity pay was not evidence of continuous employment.  This is despite Lizzie having sent a certificate signed by her employer in Chile stating her continued employment.

UKBA said Lizzie had not shown evidence of her savings.  This despite her having submitted bank statements, although she admits they were a few months older – an ISA which only sends out statements on an annual basis and premium bond statements which were first sent to Lizzie’s parents home and then to Chile. But the money was there and she did the best she could to obtain evidence of her UK savings from Chile, while also juggling recent motherhood.   

Lizzie is furious that rules clearly discriminating against women are in place; rules which systematically penalise women - for having kids, for adopting the traditional role of homemaker, for sacrificing their career to care for their family.  For being women - who historically and statistically are paid less than men.

Legal advice indicates Alexander won’t qualify for a visitor’s visa as he has displayed an intent to live here.  So the only way for the family to see each other is for Lizzie to travel to Ecuador, on a 15+ hour flight with a toddler.  She can’t remain there as she is employed here and doesn’t want to jeopardise her income here lest she lose her appeal.  So she is juggling childcare and employment.

The real victim of these rules is Lizzie and Alexander’s little girl.  Geneva Convention was created to protect families from exactly this sort of abuse.  Her daughter only sees daddy through Skype for an hour each day and her mother is constantly stressed, tired and struggling.  This is not how their family was. They were so happy.  Lizzie never dreamed the system could get things so wrong; her family is torn apart just so politicians can say they’re being "tough on immigration".  She is upset British citizens are made the scapegoats for a political agenda.  She’s hurt UK has let her down; angry that no one is accountable for the misery caused.  

Following the visa refusal the couple appealed; they engaged the services of a barrister and contacted Lizzie’s local MP who was very matter of fact about the situation, with the conversation revolving around "why my husband is a contribution to the country".  This surprised Lizzie as to her Alexander not being allowed to live with them was clearly outrageous, whether or not he was skilled.  Without him Lizzie was a single mother, dependent on her parents and had it not been for them, dependent on the state!  Lizzie felt her self-worth and abilities to perform as a mother and employee had been severely undermined by the extra stress and strains of constantly worrying about reuniting the family.

The MP wrote a letter of support to the ECO in Brazil in April 2013.  In the meantime, Lizzie found herself desperately coaxing her daughter to "perform" on Skype to satisfy the increasingly frustrated and worried Alexander that the little girl was alright, happy, and though missing him, coping.  But the child rebelled against the tedium of screen-time – crawling, standing and walking for the first time, without her dad.  Slowly, Spanish was forgotten and English took its place.  However, none of this seemed of any importance; only Lizzie’s income was looked at.

Lizzie went to the media to share the plight of her family at the hands of the Home Office, and like so many, even wrote to David Cameron.  And like so many, she received a standard response that her letter had been forwarded to the Home Office.  In November 2013, the couple heard back with another refusal from the ECM.  By now, Lizzie had worked for 6 months, earning a salary in excess of £18,600.  Despite the refusal, this information was sent to the ECM for review once again. 

By this time though Lizzie had lost all faith in UK immigration and thus looked at alternatives for family unity, like living in another EU country.  Desperate to be together for Christmas the family decided to meet in Ireland, to then scope out options but at least, spend the holidays together.   In the previous ten months, the family had been together for only three weeks and the separation was taking its toll. 

Lizzie drove for seven hours to Holyhead and took the ferry to Dublin on December 16th.  Whilst on the ferry, Lizzie received an email from her MP indicating that their appeal had been subject to a special review, and that a decision had been made to grant the visa.  Lizzie could not believe it. The turnaround, the timing, that in fact it was all over….that the next time the couple said goodbye it would be for a matter of weeks, not months!  It was the best Christmas present one could have asked for.  Lizzie drove straight from the ferry to Dublin airport to pick up Alexander and told him the good news. The next three weeks were like a fairy tale, with the couple starting 2014 together and knowing they would be finally able to say we would continue together.  To this day Lizzie isn’t sure why the application was reviewed; the news reports, the letter to the PM or the email to her MP which showed six months employment in the UK?  Whatever, the family is grateful they are finally together.

Update January 2015:
Alexander has been in the UK for eleven months and the family couldn't be happier.  The couple had to re-learn how to live together; adapt to sharing parenting duties and allow Alexander to make mistakes Lizzie already had, to get to know their daughter once again, and forge a father-daughter relationship.  Shortly after his arrival, Alexander was unwilling to discipline their daughter for fear she wouldn't love him. Now he is far more secure of his importance in her life and feels confident in taking a more fatherly role in her upbringing.  They have "in jokes", sing special songs together and even take days out without Mummy.  

Alexander has adjusted to speaking English all the time, working in a factory job until he the now more suitable job working at Virgin Health Care, living with his in-laws, English food, our climate, and making new friends.  Red tape around trivial things like car insurance and NINO meant he relied on Lizzie constantly reiterating how much independence he had lost.  

The couple has had to be patient with the other and don’t forget how fortunate they are to be together, nor the misery of being apart.  They start 2015 with much to look forward to, with Lizzie on the verge of completing her AAT accountancy qualification and the imminent arrival of their second child.

Lizzie says: “I think our lives will always be a little more complicated than your average British family but together we can overcome so much. We are positive about our future in the UK and feel fortunate but I remember how hard it was to get here and wish the best of luck to those struggling against these rules. I had so much support from my family and from the people I turned to for help; my MP, local journalist and the community I live in.  I know others have many more hurdles and I hope they find a way to battle on, to not give up; I hope these rules change."