Highly Skilled Migrants

This post is going to describe our story to fight to stay here in the UK, and how annoying the entire process is.  It will be long on words, and short on pictures and fun.  It’s a 3300 word rant.  The rest is after the jump. (Click more below)

Not unlike our own country, England has a policy that foreign nationals attempting to spend longer than a vacation here need to acquire a visa.  Unless you are part of the European Union, as folks from the other 26 countries get a pass as part of the deal.  They also get priority for any job openings, but this is another subject.  All of the work visas here are issued on a points-based system.  There are several Tiers of visa, depending on the level of job (or not) and as the Tiers increase in complexity from 4 to 1, the number of points required to qualify for said Tier also increases.

When we first applied to work here in the UK, everything was in Chelsea’s name.  This is because she was the only official Dr., and at that point it would be easiest and cheapest for me to be part of the application as her dependent.  Unfortunately for us at the time, she only qualified for the Tier 2 visa, which is dependent on sponsorship from an employer.  Ironic enough, the Tier 1 category is also called the “Highly Skilled Migrants” category and is supposed to be for those who are leaders in their field or have a specialized skill set.  One could easily argue that a PhD qualifies her as a “highly skilled migrant”, however in the points based system a degree like that only counts toward 50% of the number she needed.  The other 50% was based on criteria such as work experience, proficiency in the English language, and how  much money you earned.  Unfortunately for us, she simply didn’t earn enough as a graduate student and six month post-doc to convince anyone that she was actually highly skilled.

She therefore went through the process of filling out the extensive application for a Tier 2 visa for the two of us.  In addition to the 70 page paper application, she also needed to provide supporting material such as certificate of sponsorship from her employer, passports, marriage license, birth certificate, diploma, bank statements and basically any other important document you might keep in a fire proof box.  And to top it all off, we had to make an appointment and drive up to Syracuse in order to submit our “biometric data”, which was just an official scan of all our fingerprints.  Once all our ducks were in a row, she then FedEx’d the entire packet to the British embassy in New York city.  Luckily for us, we got out documents back, with shiny new work visas glued right into our passports.  Our documents were gone for two weeks.

Fast forward to January 2011, exactly one year after we arrived in the UK we were set to apply for a Tier 1 visa.  Why were we going to apply for a Tier 1 visa if we already had Tier 2 you ask?  Well, let me Tarantino it for you.

We arrived here on January 18th 2010, a day that will live in infamy for Chelsea because she was “encouraged” to come straight to work after taking the red-eye over here, figuring out how to get to Oxford, and being let into our flat for the first time.  Not that it is bad to be social and visit your new lab, but in retrospect, this was probably a bad sign.  Unfortunately for all parties, the next 8 months proved to be too much for Chelsea at work (to put it nicely) and she made the brave decision to leave the lab she came over to the UK to work in.  I know this wasn’t an easy decision on her part, but what transpired in the month following her announcement of intention to leave the lab was nothing short of horrible.

We were immediately informed that Chelsea couldn’t quit her current position outright without risking our ability to stay here in the UK, which put her in a difficult position.  So not only was she not happy, but her employer wasn’t happy because she didn’t want to be there.  All of this drama ties in to the fact that her work visa depends on employment, and my work visa depends on her work visa.  Which meant that if she just left her job, she would lose visa status, I would lose my job, and we would be deported within 28 days.  Not a stressful time for her at all really.  So she put in her time at the job she didn’t like, while moonlighting to find another job.  And she couldn’t just work as a Starbucks barista, because one of the stipulations of her Tier 2 visa was that she would only be able to transfer to another post-doc position at the same pay grade within the University.  This made her search that much more difficult and desperate, but to cut this part of the tale short, she ended up finding a job that she really likes and we were able to stay here.  She changed jobs in September.

With the recession finally starting to hit hard here in the UK, and the scientific funding bodies deciding to dispense less money, the funding situation for post-docs isn’t particularly good.  And because of the short nature of the process of having a position created for her, Chelsea was only guaranteed funding for a year.  This put us in another dilemma and brings us back to January 18th 2011.  Our worry was that if her funding actually does run out in September, that we would be in the same boat we were in a year before, with me losing my job and us being forced to leave the country within a month.  On the plus side, we had a logical way around this worry – apply for Tier 1 status.  Tier 1 work visas are independent of any employer, and because Chelsea had been working and earning (more) money here in the UK, she now had the other 50% of those points in the points-based application for Tier 1 status.  The only drawback we could see was that we would have to pay for the visa process again, but considering the alternative, it was worth it.  Plus when we applied only a year before, the process was very quick.  We were wrong on both counts.

The process of applying for a Tier 1 visa was not really any different than for the Tier 2 visa we currently held, a 70+ page paper application and submission of all the same supporting materials (I’m not sure how we had them all actually).  When we sent in our oversized packet to the UK Border Agency (UKBA) office, we hoped the process would be quick, especially considering that they just issued us Tier 2 visas a year before, and the only thing that was different was that we had been earning money (and paying taxes!) here in the UK for at least a year.  We certainly didn’t think that the wedding were planning on returning home to the US for on Easter weekend would be in jeopardy.

The UKBA wasted no time cashing our check for not an unsubstantial amount of money, but did take another month to get back to us.  And when they finally did get back to us, we were informed that our application could not be considered yet because it was incomplete.  We were missing biometric data.  So I called their office in protest, stating that they most certainly had our biometric data, and I even provided the dates we submitted our fingerprints in Syracuse.  I was politely informed that it didn’t matter that they had our fingerprints on file, and that although fingerprints are one of the few parts of a person’s identity that don’t change, the application would be incomplete without new biometric data.  So we booked the earliest appointment which was 2 weeks away.

Naturally, the closest appointment to us was in London, so we booked the earliest time possible hoping that we would be able to get in and out and still go to work that day.  This means that the 90 minute commute would have to start just after 6am for an 8:30 appointment to allow for the eventual blip in public transport during rush hour.  As we exited the underground station at Elephant and Castle, we realized neither of us knew where the office was.  The UKBA didn’t bother giving any sort of directions for how to find them, and for those that are not familiar, Elephant and Castle isn’t exactly the nicest area of London.  We wandered around for a while staring at the little blue Google Maps arrow on my phone, until finally we found the building.

The UKBA office we went to is actually located on the top floor of a strange building that seemed like a mix between community college and rent-controlled apartments.  Once inside we were immediately seen by the receptionist, and then informed that our appointment wasn’t actually until two weeks from that day.  Apparently there was some sort of glitch in their online scheduling system causing us to think we had the earliest available appointment, when actually we needed to wait an entire month just to submit our fingerprints.  The same fingerprints they already had on file.  Despite the fact that we made the trip there, and were standing in the office while all the employees were playing grabass, the UKBA couldn’t help us because all the scheduling goes through some other central office.   So not only did we get up extra early, spend £100 on train fare, and deal with two 90 minute trips in the same morning, but we got to do it all again in two weeks.  Fantastic.  At least this time we knew where the office was.

In case you weren’t keeping track at home, at this point a lot of time had elapsed since our application was submitted, something to the tune of 11 weeks.  We were starting to get worried, because the date on the calendar was dangerously approaching the aforementioned Easter weekend travel we had planned.  But I continued to keep us optimistic, after all, the process only took two weeks before right?  The UKBA had our application for 11 weeks, so surely once we “completed” it by submitting our biometrics we’ll get the grand seal of approval and be on our way.

Second time was the charm in this case, we got to the UKBA office in Elephant and Castle with no problem, and were processed by the technician in under 15  minutes.  I can certainly see how that took a MONTH to schedule, and how they really couldn’t fit us in and help us last time we were in the same office.  Anyway, Chelsea politely inquired with the UKBA employee if she had any sort of estimate how long it might be until we heard back if our application was successful.  That’s right, even after 12 weeks, we still didn’t know if all the time and money would be worth a damn, it was possible that our application would be rejected.  The woman informed us that it could take up to 14 weeks after receipt of our biometrics for them to finish processing our application.  14 WEEKS!  That would put the total amount of time to process our application to switch from Tier 2 to Tier 1 at anywhere from 13-27 weeks.  That is absurd.  I’d like to re-iterate, that the only difference in our application is that we lived in the UK for a year and earned points for that, as well as making a little more money than we made as graduate students.  And we paid about $1500 for the application, which if you remember they cashed in the first week.  Can anyone remind me why we wanted to stay in the UK again please?

We were really worried at this point, because our travel back to the USA was supposed to happen in 8 days.  Therefore most of the next week consisted  of me calling every UKBA help line that I could find with mixed reviews from the employees at the other end.  Naturally, the help lines cost £1 per minute with the gratuitous 3 minutes navigating the phone tree, and another 3-5 on hold for a person.  When I finally connected with a person, I would always tell them our story and hope for a positive response.  Usually I got the stock answer that we needed to wait 14 weeks before calling back and checking, but I did get two potentially helpful suggestions.

The first suggestion was that I could request to have all our documents returned to us.  But unfortunately, this would forfeit our application, and we would lose the time and money spent to date on the process.  So we could get our documents back, but would have to re-apply after returning from the wedding. We seriously considered this as an option, because both of us wanted to be at the wedding for our friends, especially Chelsea who was in the wedding.  To complicate matters more, the new government here in the UK is trying to clamp down on foreigners stealing the jobs of their nationals and EU citizens.  Therefore they put a cap on the number of Tier 1 visas that will be issued to 700 pear  year, or about 60 per month, making the process even more selective than it already was.  I’m pretty sure if you are still reading along you will agree that this was not really a viable option.

The second useful suggestion I got was to send a fax to the Tier 1 office pleading our case and asking for our application to be fast-tracked.  After laughing at the idea of sending a fax, I sent said fax to the Tier 1 office.  I was still worried because I didn’t hear any response from the office, so my letter might not have made it, or they just didn’t care.

I then had the epiphany that because we are US citizens, the US embassy should have some sort of program in place to at least get us home.  So I called them, and was informed that they are able to issue emergency passports to citizens desperately needing  travel in the case of a lost or stolen passport, or if the UKBA takes their sweet time processing applications.  Our next grand idea was to send Chelsea back for the wedding, leaving me here to sign for our documents when they arrived.  The only problem with this plan was that if the UKBA really took the entire 14 weeks, she would have to ask for a leave of absence at work, and would be roaming around in the USA unpaid for an undetermined amount of time.  Also probably not a good option.

And of course the third option, which was suggested to us by our friends who were getting married, was to miss the wedding.  This option would definitely be the best for us, but we wanted to see our friends and support them at their wedding, so we were stuck between a rock and a hard place.

We decided to go with a modified form of option two, but instead of sending Chelsea home to the US to wander around alone, I would accompany her, so at least the two of us could go through it all together.  However, this option was also a gamble.  The gamble was that we could get someone else to collect our documents and send them to us in the USA, otherwise we would have to be at the mercy of the UKBA when we arrived back here with our temporary emergency passports sans visas.  I called the UKBA and asked if we could re-enter the country on our emergency passports, and of course received mixed opinions.  Some people told me this was a terrible idea because they could only issue a visitors visa, and this would cancel our official Tier 1 visa application, and some people told me that this should be fine, we just had to explain to the agent at the airport our story.  We took the risk and each decide to get emergency passports.

For those that haven’t had the pleasure of visiting the US embassy in London, it is akin to a large security controlled DMV.  A day before we were scheduled to depart to the USA we arrived just after 8am for a 9am appointment, only to wait in line on the sidewalk outside for almost an hour.  And that was the US citizens line, I would estimate that the non-citizens line was 3-4 times longer and slower moving.  Anyway, once we cleared security and got inside, it was just like a DMV, but with screaming children who all needed their first passports.  We were lucky and only waited an hour or so here, and were printed fresh passports to get us home.  All was good.

Funny enough, with an unbelievably bad sense of timing, the UKBA called us late that afternoon to say that our application had been processed because of a fax they received pleading for fast track treatment.  No word on whether it was successful though.  We could arrange for a courier to deliver our documents, but might not get them in time before we left, or they could just send them back the normal way.  Courier service is stupid expensive, so we figured it wouldn’t be worth the money, especially since we could get them in a day or two.

So we departed for the wedding, with hopes of having a labmate collect and ship our documents to us in the USA so that we could legally enter the UK again.  Naturally, this also stressed us out, because it took an extra couple of days before someone could collect our sensitive documents on our behalf which pushed the shipping schedule right into the Easter holiday weekend.  Everyone knows that the Brits enjoy their bank holiday weekends, so all of the delivery services were closed from Good Friday through Easter Monday.  Our package technically went out on Thursday, but after tracking it online, we noticed that it was on hold at Heathrow.  And it was likely to be there until the end of the holiday.

At this point Chelsea and I were visiting my Grandma, and we had just about resigned to the fact that we had to push our flights and car rental back a few days.  We were about to head out on the town when she just happened to refresh the tracking page and noticed that our documents were on the truck for delivery!  Success!

After a short visit with Grandma, we were packed up again and ready to go back to the UK, brand new Tier 1 biometric residence cards in hand.  And when we got to the border, we laughed at the agent, because not only did he not care about our new cards, but he didn’t care about our temporary passports.  He didn’t even understand why we would switch visa status.  At this point all we could do is laugh.  All that stress and worry was behind us, we now had the correct documentation and were now both considered “Highly Skilled Migrants”.

So the moral of the story is, don’t move to the UK.  Well, we don’t really have a good moral to this story.  Except that if we had to do it again, we would pay the additional fee for an in person Tier 1 interview instead of the method via post that we chose.  At least this we would have some promise to be shorter than the 16 weeks our application took to be processed.  And who knows, we might have to do it all again in 2  years.

3 thoughts on “Highly Skilled Migrants”

  1. Man, that sounds very painful. I have heard that the UK is infamous for their red tape and that things take an age to do. And as you mentioned, that the results could differ depending on who you have to show your documentation to. This was best satirized in the movie, Brazil, by Terry Gilliam (Monty Python guy) where bureaucracy was taken to an absurd level that it was pretty much the main industry (it’s a really messed up movie, but good). Glad to hear you guys made it through the ordeal.

  2. I hate to tell you this Nick, but the application for the US visas is pretty much as horrible as this.

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