UK immigration: promoting the best and the brightest?

427px-StateLibQld_1_118800_Mr._Justice_Edmund_Sheppard,_ca._1874Michael Smith came to the U.K. to study seven years ago. In 2009 he received a post-study work visa and started working as a dentist within the NHS, and by 2011 he had met all the requirements for a Tier 1 “highly skilled” work visa.

But when he handed in his application in September 2011, he was told the visa no longer existed. The new Coalition government’s changes to the rules on immigration had closed down routes for work visas for non-EU migrants in April of that year, with little advertisement to the wider public. Tier 1, the route for generally highly skilled migrants, no longer existed.

After a four-hour wait to hand in his visa, Mr. Smith was led to believe that he no longer qualified for any visa category.

In place of Tier 1, an ‘Exceptional Talent Scheme’ visa was introduced – but limited to 1000 places for foreign experts who have been nominated by Britain’s national arts and science bodies. Tier 2 work visas, for merely ‘skilled’ migrants, were capped at 20,700 places, with none available for those in Mr. Smith’s line of work.

Faced with the prospect of having to give up the business and life he had built up, Mr. Smith applied for a discretionary visa, which was refused, and went through several stages of appeal.

“I tried to appeal on the grounds of European Human Rights,” he told me, speaking on Monday. “Now in a nutshell what they said was this. I have no dependents. I’m working for myself, I have no employees. So my removal has no direct consequence or effect to other people.”

But Mr. Smith argues the courts aren’t to blame when it comes to enforcing the rules:

“I gave them the whole story. I mean look, I already have the business, I already have the life, I pay taxes. But they basically said it’s – and you can’t really blame them. Because with the rules, the job of the judges is to look at what the rule says and whether I apply. And unfortunately, you know, sympathy doesn’t count for anything.”

Having built himself up in self-employment as well as within the NHS, and paid UK taxes since his graduation in 2009, it’s easy to see why Mr. Smith feels he has invested his talent, finances and time in the country, and deserves to stay.

“My personal opinion is there is a very heavy political agenda behind things. They know during the election season people love to hear about immigration and what they’re going to do. And they basically made false promises to make themselves look good, but don’t actually realise that they’re affecting the genuine lives of people who want to stay in this country.

“Now granted, there are people that are not meant to stay in this country, however, I would like to say people like me who have done nothing but contribute back to the society are not given any consideration.”

The promise of help from Nick Clegg amounted to nothing:

“It was a Q&A session in Exeter that he did as a campaign or whatever. Basically a ‘meet Nick Clegg’ Q&A session. I posed a general question on immigration plus my personal problem, and he said, I’ll sort it out. Give me your email address, I’ll sort it out personally. But he didn’t get back to me at all.”

The experience has left him sceptical about both the value and effectiveness of the immigration system as a whole:

“In pretty much all political campaigns, all immigrants are being demonised. And they try to balance things out by saying: ‘Oh but we are Great Britain, we are very multicultural and we want to preserve talent’.

“I’m a prime example that they’re not doing so. I’m not blowing my own horn, but all I’m saying is, what more do you want?”

After months of appeals, his visa request was again turned down in the second tier of the Court of Appeal, when the prospect of a new potential visa was raised.

“The guidelines for an ‘entrepreneur visa’ are quite sketchy – you can apply either by having £200,000 or £50,000. The difference between the two basically is, if you want to apply for the £50,000 one, you have to already have a Ltd company in the country, you should be paying tax – all this stuff.”

The rates are steep, and most who had previously qualified for a Tier 1, generally highly skilled visa, would fall far short of the financial requirements. But having built up his business, Mr. Smith may be in a position to meet them.

“As with all applications, they say three months, I’ve been waiting since the end of January and I still haven’t got anything.”

The experience as a whole has left him reflecting negatively on his interaction with the UK immigration system:

“I mean, it’s just you end up realising how much they’re actually dangling us, at the moment. At the moment I’m technically overstaying, but you know what, they haven’t returned my passport at all. The whole time, I’m basically going from one appeal to another.”

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