Fighting to Stay

In 2009 my partner, Wild Thing, and I almost got thrown out of Britain. Not for any failure to adapt, although when people here complain about immigrants sooner or later they get around to foreign habits and languages, which make them uneasy. But we speak English, in a reckless, American sort of way. And we not only drink tea, by mid-afternoon we’re convinced that the world’s rotation has slowed and can only be cranked back up if we dunk a teabag in very hot water and add milk. Admittedly, when it looked like we were going to be thrown out of the country, we were as loud and brash and American as we’d ever been, but already Wild Thing had started to say GARE-age instead of grr-ADGE. And if we didn’t listen to The Archers—BBC radio’s popular and endless rural soap opera—we’d heard enough conversations about it to nod significantly and ask, “But what will happen to Rory?” (Answer: Haven’t a clue. He seems to have disappeared. For all I know, he moved to Minnesota.) We helped collate the village newsletter, which dunked us, like the teabag in the last paragraph, into the hot water of village gossip. (And no, I’m not going to repeat any of it. I live here. I want to keep on living here.) I could even make a decent cup of tea.

passportsWe moved here with visas in a category that should have led to indefinite leave to remain, but they had to be renewed. Trusting that the category we were in was safe and that—well, the truth is we didn’t stop to think about what we were trusting; it all looked simple—we burned our bridges, bought a house, and built a life. When it came time to extend the visas for the second time, we weren’t worried.

Silly us. We hadn’t reckoned with rule changes, and with the dislike of immigrants that’s swept the developed world. The government was on the defensive about the number of immigrants coming into the country, and it had reconfigured the rules so that fewer people would be eligible to stay. Our original category included writers, artists, and musicians. Now, though, artists, musicians, and writers weren’t worth encouraging, although sports figures (who were, weirdly, in the same category) still were, as long as they made enough money. Those of us who’d come in under the old rules were given a window of time during which we could apply for extensions, but guess what? They didn’t tell us. They didn’t tell anyone, so by the time we applied for our extensions it was too late. The window had been slammed shut and bricked over. Besides, we hadn’t said “Mother, may I?” (Or where I grew up, “Captain, may I?” And since I’m nowhere near where I grew up, no one in my writers group has heard of either phrase and want to know what I’m talking about.)

I’ll spare you the details, as my mother always said before she told me the details. The short version is that we ended up with more lawyers than cats (we have two cats, and they eat less than your average lawyer, although so do we, so I shouldn’t complain), and they prepared us for an appeal hearing in Newport, Wales. That’s the lawyers, not the cats.

The time leading up to that hearing was achingly awful. We’d built a life here, and we were looking at losing it. We reminded ourselves that many people whose lives ran afoul of the immigration rules face torture and death if they get thrown out of the country. We’d be safe, but we felt grim all the same.

One of the things that helped us through that time was the village we live in, and the people who live here. It’s a small village on the north coast of Cornwall, where we, umm, stick out a bit but where we’ve been accepted all the same. Every day or two, someone would ask us how the appeal was going, or wish us luck, and it was amazing how that support buoyed us up. A friend circulated a petition supporting our appeal. Neighbors and friends wrote letters of support. The parish council (a parish is the smallest level of local government) passed a resolution of support that we would never have thought to ask for. All of that became part of our appeal. A neighbor said he’d prayed around all sides of our house for our protection. That wasn’t part of our appeal and I’m not religious, but I do believe in goodwill, and I was, and am, deeply moved. A friend offered to organize a busload of people to attend the appeal, but our barrister vetoed it. (Lawyers here come in two flavors: barrister and solicitor.) The hearing rooms are small, he said, and the judges don’t like to feel pressured. But the fact that someone wanted to do that meant a lot.

Three people came up to Newport to testify for us, and two more came as support. The hearing was, by the standards of the British courts, informal, meaning nobody wore wigs or gowns, but it felt formal to me, with lots of your honors and the barristers calling each other my friend. One of our witnesses who knows court process and, more to the point, knows us, warned us beforehand: no swearing, no talking, no whispering, no reading. The government’s lawyer didn’t bother to present an argument—he just sat there looking lumpish and depressed— which convinced me that the government uses appeals as a way to filter out anyone who can’t afford a busload of lawyers. It’s all about numbers: The more people they get out of the country, the better they think they look.

We’d been told we wouldn’t know the judge’s decision until we got a letter in the mail, but at the end of the hearing the judge said he didn’t know what grounds his decision would rest on (our lawyer, who was wonderful, had given him several) but that we had nothing to worry about. Wild Thing turned to us and said, “Holy shit!”

She swears she was whispering, but they could hear her all the way to Cardiff. We got to stay anyway.

7 thoughts on “Fighting to Stay

  1. Love it, Ellen! They seem to be getting shorter, and I really like the longer ones, so don’t feel you have to become all English and coy!

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  2. You could draw inspiration from Derek Tangye’s words writing about his and his wife,Jeannie’s attempts to wrestle an alternative life from the Cornish earth: ‘We both find it wiser to follow our intuition than to follow reason. Reason, with all its pros and cons, its good sense and caution, makes us woolly minded and negative. Intuition, on the other hand, has led us again and again to behave irrationally, providing us with the chance to achieve the impossible.’ The optimistic belief that what you’re doing is right will so often carry you through..
    Look forward to hearing more about your Cornish journey

    Laurence Shelley

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  3. Ellen, well, yall got to stay!!! great news. winter arrived in November and left us in December. Seattle-y drizzle melted the already scarce snow. Alas, twas a brown Christmas in the Twin Cities.
    If it’s ok I need to email you some stuff I’ve been working on for an objective professional opinion.
    stay warm alan floyd

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    • I did read that, Game of Thrones style, winter in the Twin Cities was coming–and going. Do email whatever it is you’ve got, although I won’t get to it (or much else) till well into January.

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  4. Pingback: Looking American: On culture, nationality, and immigration | Notes from the U.K.

  5. Pingback: The British legal profession and its wigs | Notes from the U.K.

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