“Don’t lie!” the UK immigration agent snapped at me. I was standing in front of her desk at Border Control at Heathrow, explaining why I and my daughters should be allowed to enter the UK.
She’d just asked me a question, and my eyes had involuntarily shot up diagonally and to the left. Did that mean I was lying, or just thinking hard? I knew I wasn’t lying and I certainly knew better than to lie to an immigration agent who had the power to keep me and my children out of my own country. But the more I explained, the more she learned about me and my family, the more hostile she became and the more threats she made.
Being accused of lying, especially with the stakes so high, was absolutely chilling. I could understand why the hard plastic chairs on which my daughters and I had been forced to sit had been fastened together. I’m very well-behaved, but after the two tag-teaming Border Control agents had made several threats to put my children on the next plane back to America, even I was tempted to throw something.
Tension flooded every part of my body. This didn’t look good. Perhaps I should have taken my children through the Non-EU (Non-European Union) citizens’ line and brought them in as tourists. We could go back and forth between America and England every six months. But that wouldn’t be honest. And besides, I wanted my children to have some sort of right to live here, so I resolutely headed towards the short line for EU citizens, holding out my British passport.
Initial joy at arriving at Heathrow, soon quashed by Border Control
They must let us in! So much depends on it! I had a book to write that could only be written in England, my older daughter has been accepted to the #1 Sixth Form College in the UK, my younger daughter has been provisionally accepted to an excellent school and besides, I desperately want to give my children a sense of what it’s like to live in England before my older daughter leaves home to go to college. I’ve been trying to get my children here for years, and finally all my ducks are lined up. They have to let us in! But they’re saying they won’t.
“I’m not lying,” I told the agent, keeping my voice calm. “I’m just thinking about how to explain it to you.”
I have a British passport, dual US/UK citizenship, and an English heritage going back to the year dot. My children are the problem. They are Americans. And despite the facts that Britain allows approximately 250,000 foreign students into this country every year and that over 4 million foreign citizens live here, 1.6 million from the EU, 2.4 from non-EU countries, this woman is telling me that she will not let my daughters, minor children of a British citizen, into the country.
My English parents moved our little family consisting of my sister and me from England to America when I was three years old, and ever since I’ve longed to come back. Thanks to my father’s job as a university professor, we were able to return for three months every summer to live on my grandparents’ dairy farm in the Peak District of Derbyshire. It was heaven, sheer heaven, living in the gorgeous rolling hills of the Pennine Mountain chain, on a three-hundred-year-old farm dotted with cows and stone walls, surrounded by more than one hundred relatives in five square miles (it helps to have farmers in the family; they tend not to move) and more family history than anyone could ever compile, let alone remember.
As soon as I turned twenty-one and graduated from college, I moved back to England–specifically to Oxford, accompanied by my American college sweetheart who was on an Oxford University summer program. I took a job as a typist at Robert Maxwell’s Pergamon Press, and we house-sat for Oxford Professor of Poetry, John Wain, whom I’d met when he gave a lecture at my college. But after two months, my sweetheart had to return to the US, and a month later, I followed.
Two years later, my father was offered a position as Professor and Head of Department at the Cavendish Laboratory of Cambridge University. No doubt as an added enticement to persuading my father to take the position, I was offered a job, also in Cambridge, as the personal assistant to Sir Joseph Needham, the author of the 16-volume Science and Civilisation in China. But due to my sister’s serious illness, my father ended up turning down the job.
Several years later, there was another job offer at an English publishing company, but I didn’t pursue it due to my ongoing college love affair, which ended badly several years later and which I have regretted ever since. Then there was graduate school at Harvard, work as an editor at a major book publisher in New York, the births of my children, and a move to Boston, Massachusetts.
My life was full, living in a beautiful part of America, raising my children, and writing, but still, I pined for England.
Four years ago I moved with my two daughters and my mother (my father had passed away the previous year) to my parents’ village. My younger daughter, then five years old, settled happily into her Church of England infants’ school. My older daughter, then thirteen, started at a local secondary school. On the first day, a boy made a sexual advance, and when the teacher’s back was turned, other boys in the class positioned pencils in their flies. My daughter refused to go back. In many ways, I couldn’t blame her as the boys at that school were rough and way too sexually advanced. At the end of the summer we returned to her far more genteel school near Boston.
Four serious attempts to move to England, many more abortive attempts. It’s like quitting smoking, you try and you try and you try and finally, one day, everything falls into place.
But only if this official–who was currently accusing me of lying–would let us in.
She’d been hostile from the start. “Why are you here?” she’d said to me harshly, when I’d first been called over to be interviewed. She was late twenties, and never smiled.
My first thought, which of course I suppressed, was, “Hmm, let’s see. The US has Obama, the UK has Cameron. You’ve got a point: why would I want to be here?
But I instead said that I was a British citizen, proffered my UK passport, and explained that both of my children had been accepted to schools in Cambridge and that we wanted to settle here.
“How long have you been here?” the woman barked at me. Did she mean, 1) how long have I been waiting on these hard chairs in no-man’s-land just ten feet from having the right to bring my children to live in the country of our ancestors? or 2) how long have I lived in England?–the answer would be a cumulative ten-plus years, or 3) how long has my family lived here?
I chose the last interpretation to support my claim to Englishness.
“My mother’s side goes back to 1066 with the Norman Invasion, and we’ve traced my father’s side back to 1705, but in actual fact it goes back much further.” Back to the Saxons, who had no doubt passed along their sky-blue eyes to my grandfather and other members of my father’s side of my family.
“You don’t have visas for your children,” she said.
This is true, I said, but their current lack of visas is due to the fact that I found out less than 72 hours ago that my older daughter had been accepted into the Sixth Form College for which she’d agreed to give up her junior year and possibly also senior year at a fantastic high school near Boston, recently called one of the the best in Massachusetts, and that the first day of her new school is just over 24 hours from now!
And also, I told the woman, an official at the UK passport office in London told me last summer I could bring them to the immigration office in Croydon and get it sorted when we got here.
“You don’t want to believe him,” she said.
My heart skipped a beat. What does she mean, You don’t want to believe him?!?
Well, actually, I do want to believe him, but I knew that when she said, “you don’t want to believe him,” she was using the English phrasing that meant that I shouldn’t believe him. And why shouldn’t I? Surely a passport official would know the law!
But apparently taking my children to Croydon, outside of London, to get visas was not, or was no longer, an option, at least to this agent’s way of thinking.
“I can show you the acceptance letters from the schools, my finances, and my published pieces,” I told her.
I opened my notebook which contained all the documents I thought I’d need and showed her copies of the emails from the two schools and a financial accounting that indicated that I had sufficient money to support my children and myself. I started to extricate these documents, but instead she grabbed my entire notebook, gestured me back to the plastic seats, and disappeared.
Another half an hour passed, then she stormed back.
“When is your return flight?”
OK, this is a problem, a big problem, and it will sound bad when I explain it to her, because I know that the UK wants to see a plane ticket for your return.
When I booked our flights two days ago, planning on returning for two weeks at Christmas, round-trip tickets for the three of us were $7,800. $7,800! I’ve never paid that much for 8 round-trip tickets to England, let alone just 3!
I found much cheaper flights by booking a return trip for next week. We wouldn’t take this return flight, of course, but it would get us to England for $3,000 instead of $7,800.
The agent looked like thunder.
I tried to mollify her. “We’re planning to return for two weeks at Christmas,” I said. “My older daughter’s school lets out on December 16th. If you need me to book the return flight, just get me onto your wi-fi and I’ll do it right now.”
She stormed off again. At this point, I was beginning to think she had an irrational and personal hatred of me.
It was going on an hour-and-a-half that we’d been sitting here. I looked for something to keep my fractious, tired, and hungry children occupied as hordes of people from the EU and the British Empire streamed past us, happy recipients of the legal right to live here.
Another woman appeared at the desk: indeterminate age, spiky haired. “Your children don’t have visas,” she pronounced.
We’ve already gone through this, I thought, but perhaps they need to know how hard I tried, in the short time available, to procure those blessed visas.
I explained that in the two days between learning that my older daughter had been accepted at school in Cambridge and our leaving for England, my multiple calls to the British Consulate in Washington, D.C. had resulted in automatic phone hell in which calls led nowhere or were abruptly cut off, and the on-line application repeatedly came to a dead halt when I was unable to fill in a field.
She raised her eyebrows. Clearly, the inadequacies of the UK online immigration form were solely my fault. She ordered me back to my chair.
Half an hour later, she reappeared and I was summoned before her.
She told me that what I’d told them had checked out. For the first time in the past two-and-a-half hours that I’d been undergoing this interrogation, I relaxed slightly. The grilling had halted at least temporarily, and it was almost as if she were killing time with me while the powers-that-be in another room were no doubt watching and listening to our conversation using a hidden camera, in order to render their decision.
She then told me a harrowing story about a British couple, unable to have children because the woman could not physically bear a child, who entered into a contract with a surrogate in California. Using an egg taken from the woman and sperm from her husband, and with the help of the California surrogate, their child was born.
When the parents brought their child, who was 100% biologically theirs, back to England, the child was refused entry into the country on the grounds that the Californian surrogate was the child’s legal mother.
I could feel the hairs on my arms standing up. The California woman was this child’s mother? After all that they had gone through to have a child, the woman, who was biologically and in every other way the child’s mother, was denied her role as mother of her child and her child was denied entry into the UK?
God! I thought. This is frighteningly antediluvian!
She floated away, and the first agent, the Asian woman, appeared. She took out my children’s American passports and, stamping them far harder than seemed necessary, told me that my children could provisionally enter the country, but that we must leave by December 17th, the day after my daughter gets out of school.
This sent another chill down me. My older daughter would get out of school probably around 4 p.m. on the 16th, and this woman was giving me only until the next day to get down to London from Cambridge and then on a flight back? If anything, anything at all went wrong, we could easily be in violation of the law.
“Can I have one more day?” I begged. “Please?”
She appeared to be mentally wrestling with herself, then wrote in Dec 18.
Three months. She’d given me three months. But yet American tourists are routinely allowed to remain in the UK for six months.
Despite the fact that everything that I’d told her had been verified by my documents, despite my having British citizenship, despite my children being accepted to schools here, despite the fact that I had the financial resources to support my children, despite the fact that I’d been told by a member of the British passport office in London that I could bring my children over and get visas for them once we were here, despite the fact that I’d tried (and been stymied) to get visas before I left the US, despite everything, she’d given us only three months when the average American tourist was allowed twice that.
I gathered up my documents and my daughters and we walked the ten feet into the UK. Three months. I had only three months to get our visas sorted–or we’d have to leave by December 18th. And once we’d left the UK, as the agent had told us, we wouldn’t be allowed back.
Oh. My. LORD. This sounds like the most stressful and heinous experience of all time! I hope your lovely kids got some well-deserved food and you got a well-deserved double gin and tonic! What’s the status now? Are you all allowed to live here as a family?
Virginia A Smith said:
After five (five!!) months, I finally found out that my children were given the right to remain indefinitely–a huge step forward. But during that time, my 8-year-old was unable to attend our wonderful local state school and had to go to a private school where she was miserable due to its strictness and emphasis on religion. And then the state school said there was no room for her . . . and so it continued.
Tea in England said:
I am American, married to a Brit, and living in the UK.
Eight years ago, not long after he and I first met, I came over to visit him for a few weeks. I owned a house back in the U.S.; had a job to return to; had money in the bank; and had a roundtrip ticket, yet I was detained at Heathrow for SEVEN HOURS in a locked – yes, locked – room with a) a man from Africa who had a fake passport, and b) a young man from Amsterdam who had child porn in his luggage. Said young man from Amsterdam was in the UK to start his new au pair job for a family with 2 young boys. What in the hell was *I* doing there????!!!
I was eventually allowed into the country (together with, at least, a seemingly sincere apology for the delay) – but what a nightmare!
I feel your pain, Virginia.
Virginia A Smith said:
Wow! This is a terrible story. What awful cellmates you had, esp. the young man from Amsterdam. (And thank God they stopped him!). I’m glad that horrendous experience at Border Control didn’t put you off, because clearly you are a huge asset to the UK and exactly the sort of person they should be letting in.
We moved to the US in 1993. My partner and I and our two small, British-born children, a daughter, then 18 months and our 5 year old son.
In 1994 our second son was born in Atlanta. That Christmas we decided that a visit home to show off our American progeny was in order.
We had a great (but chilly) time, and decided firmly that we wouldn’t visit England again in the Winter, a promise I kept until 2012.
Arriving for our return flight at the Delta counter at Gatwick Airport, the agent checked out tickets and we handed over our 4 Green Cards for inspection.
“And where is the youngest child’s Visa?” The agent asked.
We reassured her that Will was born in America and didn’t need a Visa. He was listed, as you were allowed to then with minor children, in my partner’s British Passport, but was a Georgia Boy through and through we joked.
“Then, do you know where his Birth Certificate is?”
That was easy… it was in the kitchen drawer in our home in Roswell, Georgia… Oh!
We were refused entry to the plane. Period. Delta took sympathy on us and re-booked us to the same flight the next day and told us to sort it out.
We had 24 hours!
I parked the family in a hotel at the airport and decided I would be the one to go to the US Embassy back in Central London to see a consular officer for help.
I ran for the train back to London and arrived at the large imposing building in Grosvenor Square around 2.00pm.
I waited with about a dozen Americans in various states of distress regarding their visas, passports or whatever. I explained the circumstances multiple times, asked if i could just get a copy of the Birth Certificate – “Oh no, thats a State thing, this is Federal” – until at last I was ushered through the security gates to an office.
The consular official heard my story and told me that this would require the taking of an oath and sealed documents to be handed to the Delta officials, giving them dispensation to carry a potential “illegal” into the US and to the US Immigration officials when we got to Atlanta.
I sighed… thank goodness.
“So… where is the child, so we can administer the oath?”
That was easy… in a hotel room in Crawley… Oh!
Finally I was allowed as the child’s parent to take the oath of fealty to the United States of America.
I rushed back to the hotel and we presented ourselves and our papers to Delta the next day, boarding without a pause.
We arrived nervous and apprehensive in Atlanta, explained the situation and were told to wait in a side office.
We waited almost an hour before being taken to see an Immigration Officer.
After explaining the last 30 hours she put down the papers looked at us all and said…
“Wow… what a hassle! Welcome home, you must be exhausted”
Virginia A Smith said:
Wow wow wow! What a nightmare! And what an enthralling story! Thanks so much for writing.
Would also love for you to reciprocally follow my new blog too… http://andoneforthepot.com You can un-allow this post… 🙂
Virginia A Smith said:
I think I am . . . but it took me the longest time to find the “follow” button. I love your post on red trousers (pants!)