“I’ve been working here for about a year and a half,” said the security guard as she stared blankly past me, “and the whole time this place has been in total anarchy.” I was at a UK Border Agency immigration reporting centre and I believed her.
Weeks earlier, having written about my dealings with the UKBA in the June issue of Standpoint, I was suddenly struck by a feeling that I had spoken too soon. At the time, I had been waiting for my visa application to be cleared by the UKBA and my American passport returned to me after six months of thumb-twiddling. My fiancée and I had jobs and a sponsor. Holiday plans and a PhD in the States were put on hold. But one afternoon in late May, I opened my mail to read that I was going to be deported.
Technically, deportation isn’t the correct term. Because my rejection was based on a clerical error and I chose to comply with the UKBA, my case is legally considered a “voluntary departure”. This is a difference with little distinction. My willing departure was compromised at nearly every turn by the systematic incompetence of the British immigration service. My fiancée spent eight hours on the phone trying to reach our immigration team. If we failed to reach them in three business days, we were told to expect £2,500 in fines and six months in prison. Minutes before the deadline, she got through, to be told we had been given the wrong phone number. Later we were told that all rejected visa applicants had been given incorrect contact details.
Dealing with such blinkered bureaucracy isn’t just psychologically taxing, it’s also expensive. I had planned to return to the US in the autumn, and summer holiday flights had been booked for months. Regardless, we were ordered to cancel these tickets immediately as the terms of our departure had be decided by the UKBA. Days later, we were told that we had been misinformed and our original itinerary would have been perfectly OK. For the new flights, well, there were a few guidelines: we had to go directly to the US, not via Europe or any other continent. As it happens, reasonably priced last-minute flights to the US are hard to find without long layovers. Unfazed, a candid immigration officer told us she had never met an American who had difficulty affording a direct flight, so neither should we.
During the departure interview at the UKBA reporting centre, our situation took on deeper shades of Kafka. I could not be trusted with my own passport; our documents would be given to us at the airport departure gate. Want to complain? Help yourself to a form. This piece of paper might, I suppose, find its way into sympathetic hands and even be read and acted upon. I’m sceptical.
The most maddening feature of the whole humiliating process was the universal shrugs by UKBA and Home Office personnel (who never seemed very sure which agency they actually worked for).
Through the overgrown thicket of red tape, however, Britain’s truer colours do shine through. The overwhelming response I got from friends and colleagues was genuine concern, support and embarrassment. “I apologise for my country,” they would say. But they shouldn’t have to, and it’s a shame their government is making them do it.