Home truths about the Home Office

What should have been a straightforward application for leave to remain in the UK turned into a Kafkaesque nightmare for University of St Andrews’ lecturer Emily Michelson, whose research trip to Italy proved too much for visa administrators to handle

April 13, 2017
A statue surrounded by files
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I cannot write this story without feeling – overwhelmingly – how lucky, how privileged and how fortunate I am to be able to tell this particular version. That doesn’t make it a happy story. It just makes the ending less awful for me than for the many others who have lived through something similar.

I can barely remember sending in my first application for indefinite leave to remain in the UK, in the autumn of 2015. We thought the process would be routine. My family and I had gone through all the steps: a Tier 2 visa, renewal after three years, biometric residency cards, photos, Life in the UK tests, an 80-page application and supplemental mountains of paper. In addition, I had as much stability and support as any foreign worker in the UK could imagine: a permanent and well-regarded position, financial solvency, American citizenship and an A-rated sponsor who helped us with the application. There was the slight matter that I had spent a year on a fellowship in Italy, but that couldn’t possibly be an issue. Fellowships in Italy are a Good Thing for an academic, aren’t they? My sponsor, the University of St Andrews, had said in its letter supporting my application that time in Italy was a necessary part of my job, and therefore didn’t violate the residency requirements. The university believed that would suffice; the Home Office had assured it as much on the phone.

I was so unconcerned that I made plans to attend two overseas conferences. The indefinite leave to remain application process takes between six and nine months and requires applicants to submit their passports. These are mailed back with a successful application. We sent our package in, signed and sealed, in early October 2015. We hoped for a quick turnaround, within the semester, but I carefully held off making firm plans. My parents were pushing for an April visit. “I’m sure it will be fine,” I told them. “But until we have visa in hand, let’s not actually buy any tickets, OK?” We prided ourselves on our prudence; I agreed to conferences overseas only for May and August.

My family had lived in the UK since 2009: all dependants on my visa. Our two elder children were in school, where they recited Scottish poetry and danced to perfection in the school ceilidh. They had come to Scotland as a toddler and a baby. Our third, in nursery, was born here. None of them can remember life in the States. While the application was pending, we bought a house.

The Home Office envelope arrived on a Friday afternoon in March. We judged the package by its thickness, like American university acceptance letters. There were clearly no passports. Reason for refusal: break in lawful leave of residence. The research fellowship in Italy was considered extraneous to my work. The letter added: “While your employer St Andrew’s [sic] University state [sic] that your time spent in Italy was connected to permitted UK economic activity, no evidence has been provided that this was a fundamental and mandatory requirement of your continued employment.” It stated that I had not provided documentation to show continuous employment. Not that the Home Office had ever specified, anywhere, that such documentation would be required. The rejection also said that the university letter’s reference to REF-related work in Italy did not suggest my trip was mandatory. (Note: if the research excellence framework isn’t mandatory, we’d all like to know.)

This is where I explain that the job I applied for in the UK, and currently hold, is “lecturer in continental religious history”. If I were a marine biologist specialising in the Fife coastline, it might be harder to argue that a year in Italy was fundamental to my employment. But “continent” is in my job title, and the part of the continent that I have studied for 20 years is Italy. For me to produce any research, I have to spend a lot of time in Italy. I have to read manuscripts that exist in only one copy in Italian archives: books that have been out of print for 400 years and have almost never made it even to the British Library. To put these works in context, I also read specialised scholarship by Italian historians that is certainly not available on Amazon, JSTOR, or even Italian scholarly websites. The single most detailed piece of scholarship on my current topic is a set of articles from the late 1930s in a hard-to-find Italian monastic journal. Guess which country has copies? Specialisation at this level does not make me obscurantist; it gives deep roots to my big research questions. This was all clearly understood when I was hired. My job application had laid out my plans to apply for extensive research leave in Italy within five years.

We took the weekend to panic. We were given no right of appeal: only the right to an “administrative review” in case of a working error. Over the next week, we called the university and, with its support, started looking for immigration lawyers. I also started reading immigration message boards. These are full of agony and desperation. They made me appreciate how extremely fortunate I was in my misfortune. I speak English. I am related to half a dozen lawyers and am not afraid of reading fine print, or of arguing my side. I have a sponsor who was willing to pay my legal fees and the hefty application fees for a family of five. I knew that we wouldn’t starve if we were rejected again. And we enjoyed the righteous indignation of many friends and colleagues, one of whom had written to our MP and the university’s new principal within minutes of hearing the news. Most of all, they believed that I was in the right.

In consultation with St Andrews, we decided to take up the offer of the review. Other lawyers had advised us to submit a full new application immediately. But this possibility wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the rejection letter, and I wanted to exhaust my legal options. Now I wonder whether this was the right idea. I was later told by someone inside the system that the Home Office has slashed the number of appeals courts by 90 per cent and uses the administrative review as a smokescreen. Perhaps we never had a chance.

The most frustrating thing was the lack of any chance to explain. Administrative review allows for no extra documentation, and has to follow a strict formula contesting the misapplication of the law. I wrote letters of explanation and obtained more letters from the university but we couldn’t use them. I couldn’t even submit the St Andrews payslips and bank statements from my Italian year, which leave nothing to interpretation. To my friends, I smoothed out the truth: “They made a mistake, but it’s very hard to fix mistakes in the Home Office.” But, in fact, in the face of such stonewalling, I was truly afraid.

A statue wrapped in red wire
Getty/Alamy montage

More broadly, I wanted to argue that I was doing exactly what the UK government (at that time, pre-Brexit) claimed to want for its universities. I wanted to point out the benefits that my Italian year had brought to the university and the country. The 2014 Nurse review, Ensuring a Successful UK Research Endeavour, argued that the core mission of UK research activity should be to “build and maintain national research capability and international competitiveness for the benefit of society”, and that research initiatives within Europe “should be further strengthened”. Here, I had won an international competition for that fellowship, building my research capability. The very research that I carried out in Italy subsequently earned me another major grant – funded, ironically, by the same government that was rejecting my visa application. The Green Paper of November 2015, Fulfilling Our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, aimed to “strengthen the voice of UK research, particularly internationally”. As a fellow at a prestigious research institute in Florence, I formed links with scholars from the US, the Netherlands, Portugal, France, Germany, Australia, Spain, Italy, Iceland, Hungary, Israel and Japan. I learned a lot about their universities; was I not, in turn, raising the international profile of my British employer?

We stuck to legalities but the administrative review was denied. The refusal letter was overtly threatening: we must now make plans to leave the country. Our passports would be sent to the airport of departure. On the message boards, I heard stories of similar applicants being strong-armed through the departure gates. My friend inside the system described to me a Home Office completely overwhelmed by applications, its budget slashed in the face of a wave of immigration, towers of applications on every desk, and no time or training to contemplate complications case by case. No wonder that their phone advice was unreliable. I tried to remember this and not hate them. It sometimes worked.

Through nobody’s fault, the refusal letter arrived on the first work day after my admission to hospital. The threats started immediately: phone calls and texts every day, telling me to leave the country. These came from an organisation hired by the Home Office to harass visa over-stayers. It took two attempts from the lawyers before they stopped.

I spent my first week on the ward organising a new application. We had two weeks to submit it and be forgiven if we were successful. From my bed, I spent my alert hours emailing, arranging for bank statements, tax returns and payslips to be collected by my husband, and speaking to the lawyers on the phone. We reactivated and updated the letters of explanation and support from me and from the university. We asked our MP to monitor the case. During the second week, every day that surgery was delayed was a day I could use to get the application finished. Finally, it was ready, except for my signature – and so were the surgeons. I don’t really remember but, apparently, when I came to, grey-faced and drugged up, my first words to my husband were: “I’m so glad you’re here…did you get the papers?”

By now it was May. We prepared for another six-month wait. We did another round of biometric permits. While we waited, I was promoted and won another government-funded major grant – again based on research in Italy. Recovered from illness, I nonetheless withdrew from all overseas conferences. My nephew’s bar mitzvah, three years in the planning, took place without us. We skyped the next day in tears, having missed the only family reunion in a decade. I worried for the health of my elderly parents; I couldn’t go to them if needed. And I started looking at jobs in the US, fearing that we had run out of options and would soon be kicked out of the UK. The academic job market being what it is, I also wondered whether I was facing a complete and unwanted career change. How lucky I was, though, that what I was contemplating was only a career change when, for others in similar situations, it’s destitution, a return to violence, a complete loss of hope.

The new result came at last, in late November, with a phone call from the lawyers. The third attempt – and second application – had worked. After 14 months without them, we now had our passports, and precious new “indefinite leave to remain” cards. But there was no champagne: only a gradual willingness to believe and admit that we could stay, and the slow dissolution of the lump of dread in my stomach.

The new paint in the house has long since acquired kid-height smudges. Our youngest has started school and won a certificate for his rendition of Robin Rid Breist in Scots. Our daughter’s Scottish accent, which had waned during the year in Florence, has taken firm root again. I have been to Italy for research, and returned safely (though border agents are now formally required to question me about my black mark every time I enter the country). I may yet spend a long stretch abroad with my family but we can continue to build our lives in the UK indefinitely. Indeed, by doing so, we befit the Scottish government’s recent call for more working-age migrants.

But even then, it’s a slightly hollow victory. The Home Office’s last letter refused to concede the principle. They granted me indefinite leave to remain only as an exception, they said. Under no circumstances would they ever have counted my sojourn in Italy as a continuous part of my employment. Now, familiar with the relevant clauses, I can cite UK immigration law directly to the contrary. And I’ve heard of far worse cases than mine among similar scholars, some of whom have had to reapply for their own jobs, wait a year outside the country or give up their UK careers entirely.

And now, not only does the UK have a decidedly more xenophobic government than before the Brexit vote but the home secretary who was responsible for visas when I first applied has since become the prime minister responsible for isolating the UK from Europe. I wonder: if one American doing her job well was too much for Home Office staff, how will they manage the paperwork of every EU academic in the UK? I fear increasingly for the UK’s ability to recruit the best scholars from around the world, and to allow them to conduct their best research on the rest of the world. It’s not clear how we can be “world-leading” – as the REF would have us be and as starry-eyed Brexiteers insist we will always remain – when engagement with other countries comes at such a price.

That’s not my only fear. I love living in Scotland, and I am deeply, viscerally grateful for my life here. There is so much to love about living in the UK. But the best I can say about the Home Office is that it is not showing the best face of the country I so admire. I’m fully aware of the vast amount of education, confidence, privilege and support I took to my battle with it. Even then, it was hard to win. I fear for the experiences of other immigrants, who may have fewer advantages but who have so much to offer the UK, and so much goodwill towards it. And I fear for a country that fails even to provide them with fair and consistent channels to make their case to stay. 

Emily Michelson is a senior lecturer at the University of St Andrews. She would like to thank the university and its School of History, which chose to be outraged on her behalf, kept channels of communication open and provided any and all letters and support needed. She is also grateful to her family, her lawyers and her colleagues and friends, who gave her contacts, argued for the value of her work and were publicly angry for her and her family when they were scared to speak aloud.

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Reader's comments (1)

Thanks for this article, which does a lovely job of tracking both the complexities of the visa process (including the infuriations of dealing with the human-less Home Office) and the realities of addressing that there are people who have even less access and ability to battle for their right to cross borders. I think so many of us in academia have very outdated ideas of freedom of movement and the expat life. I know I did. The closure of borders and the increase in bureaucracy affects all of us, and the ways that these physical prohibitions are going to affect the exchange of ideas and the vibrancy of communities is more than troubling as countries double-down on tightened restrictions for entry.