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The perils (and eventual success) of getting a work visa in the UK: a real-life story

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Today we are talking to Jill Stuart – an American immigrant to the UK. She will be receiving British citizenship in the next couple of months, based on ‘long term settlement’ as she has lived in the UK now for over 10 years. However Jill admits it has not always been easy to maintain her right to live in the UK.

1. What main obstacles did you have to go through in order to secure a work permit in the UK?

A recurring obstacle is that I have work secured in the UK, but it is either ad hoc, or part-time… not a situation whereby there was a single institution that could sponsor my visa. Therefore I felt that I was qualified and had income potential in the UK, but did not fit a visa category nor have a sponsor.

Other difficulties came in specifically 2010 when I split from my partner and lost my partner visa, but changes to UK immigration policy left me without an obvious visa category. (I would have applied for a ‘Highly Skilled Migrant’ visa but the coalition government had scrapped it and not yet replaced it with the Exceptionally Talented Individual category.)

Due to various complications in both immigration and employment law, all obvious visa categories were closed to me. Thus I decided to apply for Discretionary Leave to Remain. I was in full-time employment and extremely distraught at the possibility of having to leave. The application itself took months to prepare. My students also started a letter-writing campaign (i was lecturing at the LSE at this point) arguing for me to be allowed to stay. I was touched by that.

My application was rejected, and I received a letter saying that I had ten days to leave the country, or else appeal. My lawyer and I entered an appeal, and I had to hire a barrister, and was given a tribunal date.

My case was later re-evaluated my Senior Case Officer and I was granted one year Leave to Remain, but it was incredibly difficult time.

2. How did you overcome these obstacles?

For one, I hired an excellent immigration lawyer. They can be expensive and in my opinion should not be turned to automatically in all cases. Often there may be other sources of advice–for example if you are a student, your university may have visa guidance. Or there may be free visa services that would suit your needs.However if your situation is complicated, a qualified lawyer can be invaluable.

When I first realized I needed to hire a lawyer, I went to two that I found on the internet, and felt they were lacking in knowledge. Thus if you go to a lawyer, do not assume that the first one you meet will be the right one. Some will have different areas of expertise, and some may not be interested in taking on a particularly difficult case and therefore give you discouraging advice. The last lawyer I went to was referred to me by a friend–a lawyer at Wesley Gryk in London. http://www.gryklaw.com. His specialist knowledge was wonderful and I knew he had great attention to detail. He got me through my two most difficult cases: applying for Discretionary Leave to Remain in 2008, and my Exceptionally Talent Migrant application in 2011. We joked that he was my lawyer as well as my counsellor, as at times I would be very distraught in his office.

Otherwise I suppose that, in my most difficult cases, I simply kept fighting. At one point the UK Border Agency (now defunct) had my passport for nearly nine months so I was unable to travel away from the UK, and I was awaiting potential deportation on a daily basis. The stress was immense but I continued to talk to friends and colleagues and my lawyer, and to keep pushing for my right to stay.

3. Did you ever consider giving up and simply returning to the US?

Not voluntarily. However at the worst point, when I thought I may be deported, I started to see a mental health counsellor as I was incredibly distraught and under stress. Through those sessions I started to accept that I needed a Plan B, which would include going back to the US. If I had to do so, I thought I would move back to my mum’s house for a period of time, whilst looking for work and reaching out to my network, both in the US and also abroad. I also had a, perhaps somewhat fantastical, idea that (at age 31) if I were deported I may go traveling for some time.

Sometimes you have to think about what you will do in the ‘worst case scenario’ and doing so can be empowering. However it should not undermine your willingness to fight to stay in the UK, if that is what you want most.

4.  What advice would you give to international students wanting to stay in the UK after their studies and work?

It is a difficult time for recent graduates to find work in the UK, and that is something that I resent and regret on behalf of my own students who are finishing now.

On a superficial note, I think it is important not to take the hostility of the UK government towards immigrants personally. At times I have felt affronted and even hurt that a country that I have loved and respected and contributed to for so many years can have such an aggressive stance towards accepting me as a resident. However that is the government, and policy, but not the attitude of many average people that you will meet.

On a more practical note, I would suggest talking to your university to see if they have any advice.

A tricky issue relates to the minimal income caveat–that is, you can get a sponsored visa if the minimum earning threshold is above a certain level. Therefore should students, such as many of those that I teach, who would rather work in lower paid non-governmental jobs for example, compromise their principles to get a job that pays well enough to qualify them for a visa?I can’t answer that question as it is a personal one–though it frustrates me students are in a position to have to consider this.

Otherwise, I would suggest to simply start looking for jobs that can sponsor you. And try to think of other creative possibilities. For example there are now some schemes to allow for a few entrepreneurship-related visas from each university. Some students may be eligible for a ‘heritage’ visa and not realize it–that is, if you can prove that you have a British relative within a few generations, you may be able to get a UK passport (or even European).

Consider all of your options. If you have been in a relationship with a Brit, a partner visa may be a possibility as well. But don’t be distraught if none of them pan out. I have at times found myself with no obvious options, and have had to find alternatives. Or, in the worst case accept that you may have to return to your home country–for the time being at least. You can always then work to find a sponsored job in the UK from abroad. It is not ideal, but it may give you some hope if you find you are in a position to have to leave the UK for the time being.

5.  I know you are currently  writing an academic piece on immigration- in a nutshell, what is it about?

This piece is about the ‘why’s’ of student immigration policy for three main countries: the UK, US, and Australia. Policy seems to sway from encouraging foreign students to study (in my opinion they are blatantly good for a country’s economy and society), and ‘cracking down’ on student numbers. The UK, US and Australia are potentially fighting to attract a similar pool of international students from all over the world, who are upwardly mobile, motivated and English speaking. I am curious about why their various policies are what they are at the moment, and what implications this has for each country. The piece will be published in a future ‘special section’ on international education in the journal Global Policy. http://www.globalpolicyjournal.com. The article I wrote for the LSE Government Department alumni magazine on the topic introduces these issues from a UK perspective: http://www.space-policy.com/publications

3 Thoughts on “The perils (and eventual success) of getting a work visa in the UK: a real-life story

  1. I think the answer is fairly simple: foreign students, while they study, bring a lot of money into the economy, paying high school fees, renting rooms etc. But if they want to stay in the UK (or elsewhere), it’s a different story: they compete with a huge number of local students (who are and whose parents are voters…) for employment and benefits. The situation might be different if unemployment rates among young grads were not so high.

  2. HI Jill. I am through the pain now. To be honest, if I could get a job in California, USA, then I perhaps will choose that job rather than in UK.Although I like UK, I do not think this country welcomes me. Actually, it is the lost for UK to restrict international students tightly as well. As far as I know, many of my friends are trying to find job in Australia and US, where welcome them more.

    • Dasha Amrom on September 23, 2013 at 6:27 pm said:

      Hi William,
      Thanks for your comment. I totally agree – all these restrictions are not necessary but I would say it is just as hard and challenging to find a job and secure visa sponsorship in the US. Australia is much easier – that’s true but for certain industries UK is still international students’ preference and the economy is picking up now – so many more opportunities are opening up as unemployment decreases.

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