Box Ticking

Some people would call Pauline an illegal immigrant.  It’s true that she has no immigration status, no legal right to be in the UK, so I suppose she ticks that box.  However, I very much doubt that when most people spit out the term “illegal immigrant” that they are thinking of someone like Pauline.

A neatly dressed woman in her early sixties, when she attends my office Pauline gives me a number of letters from community organisations, each attesting to her dedicated voluntary work, praising her for going above and beyond when it comes to helping those in need.  However, her anxiety seeps through as she recounts her story, her voice often sinking to a whisper as she tells me about her life.  There are some bits that she just can’t bring herself to talk about at all and it is only some time afterwards, when I receive a copy of her file from the Home Office that I really begin to understand it all properly.

Pauline first came to the UK from Jamaica in 2002.  The first seven years of her immigration file read like a manual of instruction for well-behaved immigrants: a number of in-time applications for further leave to remain, first as a student, and then finally as the spouse of a British citizen, each duly granted.

Then, in 2009, it all imploded.  Having married and been granted leave to remain as the spouse of a British citizen, Pauline made an application for further leave to remain.  She might have qualified for Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) but at the time of application she hadn’t yet passed the Life in the UK test, which was an obligatory condition for a grant of ILR.  She did, however, pass the test two weeks later.  The Home Office noting this, wrote to her giving her an opportunity to vary the application to an application for ILR, sending her the application form and giving her 28 days to respond.

I don’t know how many of you have ever completed a paper application form for ILR.  At that time the form was around 28 pages in length.  Some sections could be skipped over for some applicants, but you had to be very careful to complete all the sections that applied to you.   A failure to complete a relevant question could result in refusal of your application and loss of your application fee.  Even for someone who dealt with such forms regularly it would take quite a time to complete the form and to put it together with all the necessary supporting documents for submission.  Pauline completed the application form without any legal help and returned it to the Home Office.  The next Home Office file note states “the application falls for rejection as the applicant has not fully completed the criminal convictions section of the application form”. 

In 2009, if an applicant failed to provide the Home Office with all the necessary information in their application, there was almost never any effort made by the Home Office to request that information, the application was simply refused.  Between 2002 and 2009 Pauline had made six successful applications to the Home Office, all properly completed, none of which had disclosed any criminal convictions.  And yet, the Home Office carried out no checks before refusal of the application for ILR to confirm whether or not Pauline had any criminal convictions, nor they did not write to her requesting that she complete the missed section.  They just refused the application. Pauline had failed to tick a box and so her leave to remain in the UK ended.

Following this refusal Pauline struggled for several years to get her status back.  Unfortunately her marriage had recently ended and she failed to fit into the box for any other type of application, so each application she made was refused. 

Then, one day in 2012, Immigration Officers and police officers turned up at Pauline’s home and took her into immigration detention.

Pauline was not able to tell me anything about her time in immigration detention.  All of the information I have comes from the sparse notes in the Home Office file.  Pauline was sent to Yarl’s Wood IRC and, after a week in detention, the Home Office attempted to remove Pauline from the UK. 

Reading through the Home Office file notes, there is a change in language.  Up until this point the notes referred to Pauline as “the app”, the applicant, but at this stage it starts to refer to her as “the subject” or “sub”.  The notes then go through a series of bureaucratic boxes ticked – documents served, forms signed and faxed or filed.  Nothing comes through in this dry text to suggest that at the centre of all this box ticking is a fifty year old woman in distress.

A file note from 8am on the day of the intended removal notes that “sub is refusing to leave the holding room for RDs [Removal Directions]”.  A further two and a half hours later it is noted that fresh representations had been submitted by Pauline’s representatives and therefore the removal will have to be cancelled for the time being.  I imagine the bits that the notes don’t tell about what happened during those two and a half hours; Pauline’s fear and desperation when the officers came to take her to the airport, her tears and stubborn refusal to move, the reasoning, cajolements, threats, that probably ensued, then, finally, the reprieve.  Pauline was not yet released from detention, however, but remained in the IRC for a further 3 weeks before she was finally allowed to leave.

Pauline does tell me about her current situation.  She is entirely reliant on friends for financial support and her voice trembles with humiliation as she tells me how she has to beg them to help her  Rising costs of living bring her the double problem of her own costs increasing while her supporters also start to feel the pinch of their own increased expenses.  Pauline is reaching the end of her tether and doesn’t know how much longer she can carry on.

I am able to give Pauline some good news, the first she has had in some time.   There is an application that I can make for her which I am confident will get her leave to remain.  She has now been in the UK for over 20 years and so meets the long residence criteria.  She has excellent evidence of her time in the UK, has no remaining ties with Jamaica and is clearly a person of good character.  To put it another way, she ticks all the right boxes. 

In Memoriam

“Don’t forget me, Bethan,” she said as the conversation drew to a close, “Don’t you forget me”.
“I’m not going to forget you, Claudette”, I replied, smiling wryly. If we were speaking on the phone I might also roll my eyes in exaggerated exasperation. The conversations with Claudette always ended like this. She’d tell me what the problem was, I’d tell her what I thought I could do about it, and as we said goodbye she’d say it again, “Don’t forget me”.
I was hardly likely to forget her. Claudette came to me when there was still legal aid for immigration work, so she had a solicitor dealing with her immigration application and my role was to try to help her to hold together the strands of her life while the immigration case ground its way through the slow mill of the Home Office machinery. Claudette was a lively, confident young Jamaican woman with two daughters born in the UK. When we first met, her eldest daughter was five and the little one was only a few months old.
Claudette lived with her daughters in a small room in a shared house and her main problem in life was finding enough money to survive and to keep a roof over their heads. Since she had no immigration status she wasn’t allowed to work or to claim benefits, so she relied on a network of friends in the community to give her what money they could spare, to share food with her or top up her phone credit. Despite all these challenges she usually seemed upbeat, energetic and determined; sometimes it seemed that she held things together by sheer force of personality.
Most of my relationship with Claudette involved me writing to funders to try to obtain one-off grants of money to keep her going a little longer, while her immigration case continued. I was surprisingly successful; Claudette’s youth, the young age of her children and the fact that she had an immigration case made her a relatively sympathetic prospect and, for a time, the grants rolled in – £80 here, £150 there, and, on one memorable occasion, a grant of £2000 which I paid to her in small instalments over a number of months, £100 at a time.
Claudette owed money to her daughter’s school for school dinners, she was trying to pay back a substantial debt to the NHS incurred giving birth and she was eternally behind with her rent. The grants I gave her didn’t exactly keep the wolf from the door so much as at least prevent the wolf from swallowing her and the children whole.
With all this and with other help I provided, such as finding a GP willing to put her on their practice list, Claudette was a regular visitor to my office over the course of two or three years. We’d sit, the desk stretching out between us, as I tried to help her navigate the difficulties of her life. I didn’t feel in any danger of forgetting her.
Then, for a while, I didn’t hear anything from her. I hadn’t been able to get any more grants and I had no other reason to call her. She got back in touch, calling me one afternoon to tell me that her landlord had finally lost patience and evicted her from her small room leaving her and her daughters on the streets. In desperation she approached social services for help.
“And guess what, they’ve sent me to a place in Margate!” she said.
“Margate? Seriously?”
“Yes. Margate. We just got her and there’s hardly anything, no bedding, not even a blanket on the beds. I’ve got no food and no money and I don’t know anyone here. What am I going to do?”
Heaving a sigh, I bade farewell to the work I’d hoped to do that afternoon and began trawling through search engines trying to find organisations in Margate who might be able to respond to someone in urgent need. The afternoon ticked away in a series of cold-calls to organisations I vaguely hoped might be sympathetic, trying to explain to people unfamiliar with the cruelty and vagaries of the immigration process what was going on with Claudette and her daughters and why most of the usual avenues of assistance were closed to her. Finally, after a number of fruitless conversations, I was able to call Claudette back and tell her that someone from the local Salvation Army would be phoning her imminently and thought that they could sort something out. “Don’t forget me, Bethan, will you. Don’t forget me,” Claudette repeated her traditional parting invocation as we wrapped up and once again I dutifully promised, of course I wouldn’t forget.
I didn’t hear from Claudette much after that. Her face and her voice were submerged in my memory, replaced by the next desperate case, the next person being slowly worn away by the immigration process, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. In short, I forgot her.
It was several years later, as I sat at my desk a colleague said, “Oh, do you remember an old client of yours, Claudette Stephenson?”
“Claudette, Claudette…Oh, yes, of course, Claudette! What about her?”
“I was talking to someone from the community and they said that she died suddenly. Lupus I think”.
I was momentarily stunned. “That’s awful. Lupus. Yes, I seem to remember she had Lupus.” I thought hard, dredging up information from below the surface of memory. “What happened to her daughters, do you know?”
My colleague shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s very sad.”
For the rest of the day I read through what was left of Claudette’s case notes, reminding myself of her story, piecing together the information I had and trying to see if she’d ever mentioned any relative, any close family friend who might be an obvious choice to take in two small girls who’d lost their mother.
I had no way of finding out any more about what happened to Claudette; when she died, what became of her daughters, whether she’d ever actually gained immigration status before she died. I thought about her a lot for some time, guiltily fretting about whether I’d really done all I could for her.
It’s been a few years now, since I heard of her death. There are stretches of time when I don’t think about Claudette for a while; but then, suddenly, something will stir the memory, like a stick stirring and agitating the water in a murky pool, and I remember her. I think of her life which seemed to be continual struggle, a daily fight for survival with no respite and I grieve for her daughters, left alone at such a young age. And I hear her voice as she says to me, “Don’t you forget me, Bethan”.
I won’t forget.