Our local Liberal Democrat MP Chris Huhne was instrumental in helping us to get a much needed visa for my girlfriend to visit the USA, and what he did renewed our confidence in the ability of politicians to care about their constituents.
The story begins in early 2008 when I was living in Florida, and my girlfriend and I had fallen madly in love, but were only able to see each other for a week or two at a time, since she works in the school system in the UK, and I only had 10 days paid holiday a year, which is normal in the USA unless you have been working for more than 5 years with a company.
We decided that it would be nice if we could spend a year together in the USA, and so she worked on getting approval from work to take a year sabbatical, and applied to the US Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) for a non-resident visa, enabling her to stay in the country for more than 6 months at a time.
Off she went to the US Embassy in London, where she sat for hours and hours, and was eventually seen.
The person who interviewed her, looked at all her documentation, including proof that she had somewhere to come back to, and that she had approval to take the year off work, but denied her a visa because she didn’t like the idea of her spending much of year with me. If she had said that she was going back-packing or something similar, she would have allowed it.
So, my girlfriend had to make her way home, our hopes of spending a year together dashed.
We decided to change our plans, and for her to just come out and see me for 9 weeks instead, which would take us from the middle of the summer school holidays in August until mid October, when the schools go back after half term.
Asking at the Embassy whether she would be able to travel or not under the visa waver program (as used by most tourists to the USA), she was told it would be ok. A new electronic database was coming into use as well at the end of the year, so she tried to register on this also, and was rejected because she had been denied a visa. However, asking if this would prevent her from traveling, she was told no.
So in August of 2008 my girlfriend flies out from London Heathrow to Miami, where not only does a man die on the plane, causing it to be termed a “crime scene” until the body can be removed, and delaying the passengers from getting off, she is pulled aside by the immigration services and has to wait for several hours to be questioned.
The plane landed at 5:30pm on this Friday evening, and it was not until almost 10pm that I had any news at all.
The immigration official who saw her, said that she had to be denied entry, because she was required to get a visa to enter the country, as the visa waiver program is not applicable to anyone who has been denied a visa in the past.
She pleaded her case, showed the official all her documentation, including the approval for a year off work (although by this time we had only planned for a 9 week stay).
As luck would have it, the official turned out to be none other than the head of immigration in Miami, and he told her that he could see no reason why she had been denied a visa. He said that she had to be denied entry, however they would “parole” her into the country for the 9 weeks, a process that they had never had to use before. He and his team spent the night preparing her case, ending up with a 2 inch thick file to go to the Embassy, however it was not until 9:30 in the morning, 15 hours after her plane had landed, that she came out from immigration and we were able to be together.
It had been a horrible night for her, one of the bravest I hope she ever has to endure, and for me, one of the coldest, since I had only a t-shirt, shorts, and sandals on, and the temperature in the terminal overnight was freezing, despite it being hot and humid outside, but I could not move from where she was due to come out, for fear of missing her if she did.
So what has this to do with our local MP Chris Huhne? I will come to that, but without explaining our situation first, it’s rather difficult, and for those who know me, it’s virtually impossible for me to write a story without going into loads of detail.
The 9 weeks went perfectly, including a trip to New York, Sanibel Island, and Key West, but then we had to say goodbye yet again, which was getting harder to do with every trip that she made to the USA.
Back home, she arranged to go to the US Embassy in London again, to apply for a visa, just to allow her into the country, since she was no longer able to enter under the visa waiver program at all.
At the Embassy, we had both hoped that this time with all the data that Miami had added to her file, she would have her visa approved, but no, her interviewer said that they needed time to look into this further, and this would take up to 2 weeks.
And so the weeks went by, with the Embassy web site saying that if you keep pestering them to check up on the status of your visa, it might make it take longer. But finally she bit the bullet and called them, only to be told that the application was still being processed, but there was an email address where she could submit an inquiry.
This she did, but no response again, and a few weeks later she called back, to be told the same thing.
This went on and on for almost 3 months, by which time we were getting extremely frustrated, as we wanted to be together in Florida for Christmas. I was sure that her file was sitting in a pile somewhere, and every time someone took a new case to look at, they looked at the size of hers and selected another. I am still pretty sure that I was right.
Finally, in desperation, she emailed Chris Huhne, and within an hour or so she had an email back to say that he had written to the US Ambassador on her behalf.
She had initially thought that the email which came back would be to say that there was nothing that could be done, but not only had Chris Huhne responded quickly, he had made sure that he contacted the US Ambassador, and this did the trick, for only a few days later a letter arrived to tell her that her visa had been approved.
Sadly when it arrived stamped into her passport, the visa was only given for one year, and it took so long to get that we had by that time decided that I would come home for Christmas instead.
I have since that time got my US Citizenship, as I had been out there for 15 years, and I also ended up moving back to the UK so that my girlfriend (now my wife as of this month) can be together.
Right now we are in the process of trying to get her another visa so that we can go back to Florida on vacation during the summer, and it looks so far as if it’s going to be another complicated process. This time however, she is married to a US Citizen, which should make all the difference.
Having to pay over £100 for the visa, plus commuter rate rail fares from Southampton to London, plus £1.30 per minute to call the Embassy, it’s a really expensive process, and she is not sure that she can do it again, so I hope it all works out this time and that they at least give her the means to enter the USA for more than a year.
But thanks to Chris Huhne she was able to get a visa, and if not for him, her file would probably even now be sitting in a pile somewhere gathering dust.
The UK needs more MP’s like Chris, who care about their constituents and what is going on in the local area.
We both wish him well in the up coming General Election, and a successful political career.
Eastleigh Liberal Democrats