It’s one thing to have heard or read the phrase “hostile environment” in terms of immigration, another to be caught up in the reality of what it means – to see and experience Theresa May’s brainchild from when she was Home Secretary, up close and personal.
But for Shrewsbury town planner and UNISON member Grahame French and carer Pauline Taylor that is precisely what happened.
A year after Grahame’s first wife left him, a cousin recommended he use an online dating site. Pauline’s daughter had put her mother’s profile on the same site. And in August 2015 they found each other.
Grahame says that Pauline “really stood out and we couldn’t stop texting – though being quite shy, it took me over a month to ask her out!”
Pauline is a Jamaican national and has lived in the UK for over 17 years on a series of Home Office approvals. All of her family are here with settled status. She has British grandmothers and one grandfather saw active service with the Royal Navy in World War II.
From wedding notice to a detention cell
In their situation, a couple has to apply to the Home Office for permission to marry. On 21 August 2017, the day after a two-and-a-half-hour interview, the Home Office granted Grahame and Pauline that permission.
Once permission is granted, a couple is given a notice period after which the marriage can take place. For Grahame and Pauline, that notice period was scheduled to end on 16 September 2017. Grahame booked their wedding for 16 October.
On 15 September, the day before the notice period ended, Pauline was making one of her regular reporting visits to the Home Office in Solihull, when she was detained. She told staff that she still had a live application for a visa. Five minutes later, an immigration officer returned and handed her a refusal decision.
Grahame says they met all the criteria for Pauline to be granted an appropriate visa, including Grahame’s income and the fact they had been living as a couple for two years; yet the Home Office claimed they could not have been together for that time, in spite of Grahame having evidence.
Held in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre for 24 days, Pauline lost a stone and a half and was put on suicide watch.
The couple’s solicitor, immigration specialist Shiraz Peer, describes the case as a “serious miscarriage of justice,” with the Home Office “digging its heels in” in spite of all the evidence.
It is, he says, a perfect example of the hostile environment. A judicial review has been lodged, with a claim for aggravated damages.
Even if I could work in Jamaica, there are no equivalent jobs and we would be faced with a life of poverty
Grahame’s manager at Shropshire Council has written to the Home Office pointing out that his specialist skills – in areas including minerals and waste, large housing schemes, major engineering and agricultural schemes and renewable energy – “are in short supply” and would be difficult to replace. He was also supported by an additional letter from the council’s chief executive.
Pauline’s detention in Yarl’s Wood has also re-awakened the clinical depression that she had previously suffered as a result of the history of appalling abuse she and her daughters experienced before coming to this country.
Even with her family here, this is apparently the world that the Home Office now claims is perfectly safe for Pauline to go back to. The Home Office has also stopped Pauline working as a carer.
Unsurprisingly, all this has taken its toll on Grahame’s health too, with his GP advising that placing him in a position where he would have to accompany Pauline on a forced deportation could have serious and potentially fatal consequences for his own health.
Not only would he lose his job of 30 years, his home and his future pension entitlements, but he adds: “Even if I could work in Jamaica, there are no equivalent jobs and we would be faced with a life of poverty.”
Yet despite all the evidence, the Home Office declares that there’s no reason they cannot both go to Jamaica – or, as it suggested at one stage, Grahame could stay in the UK and maintain contact with Pauline by email or Skype.
UNISON on their side
“At that point, in desperation, I was looking for any support I could get,” says Grahame.
“It didn’t initially occur to me to contact UNISON, which I have been a member of for most of my 30 years in local government. However, I spoke to the charity Migrant Voice about Pauline’s case and they recommended it. It’s the best thing I did.”
Grahame first contacted his local branch, who referred him to the national office.
UNISON has since raised the case with the Labour Party, while general secretary Dave Prentis has written to home secretary Sajid Javid about the couple. The union is also trying to ensure that their plight does not simply drop out of the public eye.
An inflexible, rigid approach to human beings
“The details of Grahame and Pauline’s case have shocked me, given all the concerns that have been raised over the past year, and lead me to believe that the lessons of Windrush have still not been learned,” Mr Prentis says.
“A common thread in recent mistakes by the Home Office has been an inflexible, rigid approach to human beings – mistakes that have had a catastrophic impact on the lives of ordinary people in this country.
“This has included deportation, denial of lifesaving NHS treatment, loss of jobs and livelihoods by people who were legally entitled to live, work and access services in this country.”
And Mr Prentis concludes: “I am deeply troubled that this extends to telling British citizens to leave the country if they are married to a foreign national – even if they meet Home Office rules and conditions to live in this country as a family.”
A happy ending
In May, after this article first appeared in activist, the Home Office granted Pauline 30 months leave to remain.
“Undoubtedly a major factor in this about-turn will have been media pressure,” says Grahame, who cites the UNISON article, along with a petition that had been signed by more than 100,000 people and a video circulating on social media as contributing factors.
“So ‘people power’ really has worked in our case,” he adds. “The union’s help has been massively appreciated.”
And if there’s icing, it obviously has to be on a wedding cake. Despite their troubles, Grahame and Pauline, now Pauline Taylor-French, did marry – for nothing was going to stop this particular love story.
UNISON provides free immigration telephone advice to members who have come to work in the UK.
If you have been a member of UNISON for more than four weeks and need immigration advice and information, please call UNISON Direct at 0800 0 857 857. Please be ready to give your full name, contact phone numbers and your UNISON membership number.
Your contact details will be passed on to an adviser from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), who will call you on a Tuesday, between 10am and 4pm.