Sunday, March 14, 2010
Leaving The Country
The immigration lawyer was uncompromising: “Your wife must leave the country by midnight”. It wasn’t the best start to a Monday morning. Things were about to get a lot worse.
The previous evening I was feeling rather chuffed because I’d saved £100 by booking some cheap flights in advance for our summer break. I printed out the boarding passes and popped them into our passports for safekeeping. Jo’s fell open at her visa page.
I remembered how complicated and costly it had been to get that little yellow stamp: we’d needed a mound of evidence to prove our cohabitation. Bank statements, photographs of our life together, correspondence and bills: the paperwork had filled a small suitcase. That must have been nearly two years ago.
I studied it. ‘Expires 8.3.10’: that’s tomorrow. Damn.
“Maybe we just could pop down to London to get it renewed?” I asked. “After all, we’re married now with a British baby: they’re hardly going to refuse us”. “If I do have to leave the country we could always fly to Paris for lunch,” Jo suggested hopefully.
“She’s certainly entitled to British residency,” explained the lawyer, “but she needs to take an English test first.” I wondered if it mattered that she still calls aubergines “eggplants”. “However it would take days to book the test, and she must be out of the country tonight. She’ll just have to get a new visa in America”.
There was a long pause while I took this in. We had to get to America. Tonight.
“Will I be back for my filming day on Wednesday?” Apparently I had to be kidding. This process could take weeks. It was already 11am. LA was out of the question: we might just make the last Heathrow flight to New York.
We flew round the house. Jo packed a bag for Izzy – as we had no idea when we’d be back, she had to come with us. Meanwhile I tried to find evidence that Jo wasn’t an illegal immigrant. Apparently these days you can’t just turn up at the Embassy with a baby and a marriage certificate: we needed a full dossier on our life together. We threw our wedding album and the contents of an entire filing cabinet into a suitcase and raced for the airport. We made the plane with a minute to spare.
A few hours later Jo and I, holding a very confused Izzy, stared at the view. To the left was the Chrysler building, to the right the Empire State, below us the flashing lights of Broadway. We were on the 34th floor of a hotel in Times Square. It was 5am English time. The flights had cost £2,000; the visa, hotel and lawyers’ fees would probably double that. That's if the British Embassy let us have the visa at all.
At daybreak we filled in the online application form. It said we needed “biometrics”: fingerprints. However the earliest appointment to get this done was a week next Thursday, the day I was supposed to be the keynote speaker at the North East Business Awards in Newcastle. In desperation we hailed a yellow cab and drove to Brooklyn. The biometrics office was in the middle of an orthodox Jewish quarter, the same area where Jo’s grandparents had arrived in 1912, fleeing Russia with only the few possessions they could cram into a suitcase. We knew how they must have felt.
After much pleading, the officials relented and took Jo’s fingerprints without an appointment. Back in Manhattan, a man called Ravi helped us file our application. His tiny office was full of foreigners desperately trying to get into Britain. A few hours later, we collected our visa. That night Virgin found us a flight to Heathrow and, to our amazement, Jo's fingerprints matched the ones she'd left behind in Brooklyn.
BA charged us £200 just to change our domestic flights back to Newcastle. However it was worth it: we arrived home just in time for the theatrical event of the year, the Whalton village play "Macbeth The Musical".
It wasn’t quite Broadway, but it sure felt great to be home.