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An Aunt’s Immigration Tale

“But my father’s dying.”

I didn’t want to say the word “dying” because I still had hope for a miracle and was superstitious about such pronouncements, but needs must at a visa interview at the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square, London.

The eyes of the brutally handsome officer were calm, but not calming.

“He should be prepared to come to the UK.”

“But he can’t. He hasn’t lived in the UK for 40 years. And he only passed through even then — he’s Irish. He hates the place.”

“He should be prepared to come to the UK,” the officer repeated.

Fat tears that must have been too incredulous to move sat in my eyes and blurred my view of the twenty-something man.

“But he has no life here, it’s not his home…he’s …an American citizen!!!” I absurdly hoped these last desperate words would have a tenderizing effect but they were meaningless.

“His entire life is there,” I went on, “his friends, his work, his neighbors, his garden, his DOG!”

“I repeat, your application has been rejected. Take this home —” he slipped a piece of paper under the plexiglass — “and read it. Please leave the counter, I have to see the next person.”

I gripped the counter to help keep me upright.

“No. You can’t do this. He is dying. He can’t die alone. He lives alone in the woods. I’m his only child and I’m taking care of him. I need to be with him. I’ll die if I can’t be with him.”

“Please step away from the counter,” he was getting annoyed — “I have another person.”

I somehow un-gripped the counter and fell away as if from a moving train into the crowds of sweating hopefuls in the US embassy waiting room and stumbled out into the blinding sunshine of an exceptional May morning. I headed to the newsagent where applicants are sent to get a new set of photos because theirs are all wrong, and bought the necessary paraphernalia to resume my smoking habit. My father’s mother, I was told as a child, was the possessor of what’s known as “the evil eye” — the ability to fell people with a curse. I was told also that the eldest grand-daughter of such a possessor would be the beneficiary of this superpower: That was me! I’d never really had the guts to try it out, but now was the time. I imagined calling the embassy the next morning to see if any officers had died overnight, then I felt guilty.

The wonkily photocopied piece of paper given to me by the officer advised me that the decision could not be appealed against and was final. I was welcome to re-apply in a year or two, if my circumstances had significantly changed and I could demonstrate that my ties to the UK were stronger than my ties to the US, and that I had no “intent to immigrate.” I barely had a couple of months, let alone years; my circumstances were changing fast.

I played the interview over and over in my mind. Where had I gone wrong? How had I demonstrated such intent? True, my father had filed a petition on my behalf for a green card 12 months prior to this interview (there would be a seven-year processing wait), a sure sign of immigrant intent that conflicted with my current non-immigrant application, but when examined on this theme I had explained to the officer that my dad had filed the petition to ensure that I could spend as much time with him as possible, that the timeframe of his prognosis at that point was not certain and we wanted to be optimistic. I had used up my quota of three-month visa waivers over the past year and had to find a way to continue being with my dad during his illness and hence had applied for the B1/B2 visa, appropriate for settling estates. The officer seemed to find all that fairly reasonable. So where had I answered incorrectly? Had I been too casual, or too American — was it because I said “vacation” instead of “holiday” when the officer asked me how often I visited my father in the US when I was a child, or because I admitted to spending a year at UC Santa Cruz back in the 80s, or because I said my dad lived in Humboldt (pot grower) or because I answered “no” in a vague and slightly Bill-and-Ted way to the questions: Do you own a home in the UK? Are you married? Do you have children? Where were my ties?

I called my dad and broke the news. The sinking feeling we both had was palpable. He was at a cancer clinic in Germany where I had just left him the day before my interview. I didn’t bother entertaining the officer with the fact that my dad wasn’t even in the States at the time of the interview (if he could get to Germany he could move to the UK surely). We were planning to return to the States at the end of his course of treatment a month later and I’d need a visa to accompany him.

A few days later I went back to Germany and whilst my dad slept paced the trim parks of Bad Salzhausen, German menthol in hand, plotting an imminent re-application for the B1/B2. I was given the names of several immigration lawyers and used up as many ten-minute consulting chats as I could. I was told unequivocally by a glamorous lawyer that I did not stand a chance of having my application approved just one month following a rejection and that I shouldn’t waste my time trying. I contacted everyone I had ever known who might be able to help and compiled a dossier of supporting character references assuring the US government that my ties to the UK were unbreakable, plus a letter from my mother’s doctor confirming her diagnosis of Alzheimers and need of my care in London and a letter from the school I was teaching at (on a self-employed basis, hence suspiciously footloose) confirming that I was a valued employee and that my job was secure upon my return from the US following my father’s death.

A month later I was back at the Embassy for my second attempt, the carefully compiled plastic dossier slipping about in my sweaty palms. I had spruced up my act, foregoing the jeans, plaid shirt and messy topknot of the first interview sporting instead a prim dress and tidy ponytail. I was, after all, a British schoolteacher.

The young buff officer (not the same one but they all look like Chippendales in there) sighed as he looked at my application. I tentatively edged the dossier an inch towards the plexiglass. “I have some supporting documents.” He shook his head. I pulled the dossier away and off the counter. It was close to lunchtime.

“What has significantly changed in the last month that makes you think there will be a different outcome to your application?”

“My father is dying”

“When is he going to die?”

“I don’t know. I don’t want him to die”

The officer nodded.

“Maybe August,” I conceded.

“What has changed since your interview in May?”

“I inaccurately represented myself in that interview. I was distressed and unable to answer the questions properly. I was a complete… IDIOT!”

At this the officer warmed to me.

“Are you employed?”

“I’m a teacher”

“Do you own a home in the UK?”

“I have a lifelong tenancy”

“Are you married?”

“I’m divorced.”

“Do you have children?”

“I have nieces and nephews. I’m an Aunt.”

The officer squinted at me through the glass and assessed me as an honest person without intent. He approved my visa.

“Thank you,” I said, “I will never forget you.”

I don’t know why I said that bad line. Release of tension I guess. He looked embarrassed, in a pissed-off way. I didn’t push it, and walked away.

Six weeks later my father died in Germany. The green card application was voided upon his death. I now go back and forth on my B1/B2 between his house in Humboldt, which he left to me, and the UK, where I’m Someone, well, at least an Aunt.

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