An NHS specialist, his British wife and their three young children have been stranded on opposite sides of the Atlantic because Britain won’t let the couple’s two adopted children into the UK.
Patrick Thies, an American orthopaedic surgeon, may now have to give up his job in Birmingham and return to the US despite the NHS spending £20,000 and nine months recruiting him, after failing to find a suitable candidate in the UK.
After accepting the job in January 2017, Thies agreed to move from Oregon to Britain with his British wife, their biological child, Philip, nine, and two adopted children, Benjamin and Edward, aged 10 and 12.
Gillian, a chemist who gave up her job to look after the children, was uncertain about how to obtain permanent visas for her adopted children. She sought advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in America, which, she said, told her that because she wasn’t born in Britain, she couldn’t bring her adopted children into the country with permanent visas.
“I was told that the fact the boys were adopted meant they were treated differently under immigration proceedings than for any other legal processbut that the boys could enter Britain on visit visas, as they had done many times before, and we could then change the boys’ status while they were all living here,” she said.
But when the family arrived at Heathrow in March 2016, the adopted children, Benjamin and Edward, were denied entry because they were carrying visit visas yet clearly intended to remain in the country. The family were detained in the airport, the boys’ passports were confiscated and they were issued one-way tickets back to New York, leaving three days later.
“The officials were seriously insisting that these young children should be separated from their family and put on an airplane which would land in a strange city in the evening where we knew no one ,” said Thies.
The family found a lawyer who got the children released from detention at the airport and secured them temporary leave to remain.
The family were then advised by the lawyer to apply for the boys to be registered as tier 2 skilled worker dependent children based on their father’s employment contract. The Home Office accepted the application form – and the £1,800 fee – only to turn the application down a few weeks later because, they said, the form couldn’t be submitted from inside the UK.
“We’re intelligent, educated people who aren’t trying to deceive anyone and we could just not get it right,” said Gillian Thies.
The family then hired Andre Minnaar, an immigration specialist at Cartwright King solicitors. Minnaar advised them to apply again to the Home Office using the boys’ right to a family and private life under article 8 of the European convention on human rights.
“I was very confident the application would be successful,” said Minnaar, a specialist in unravelling complex immigration issues. “I regularly make successful applications under article 8 in cases far less clear-cut than this.”
The Home Office’s own deadline for application responses is three months. The family, however, had to wait 10 months. “We couldn’t register with a GP, or apply for a mortgage on the house we wanted to buy here or get our driving licences. Patrick’s father nearly died during this period but we weren’t able to visit him.”
When Home Office’s letter finally arrived, however, Minnaar said he was left “totally speechless”: the boys’ application had been turned down.
“The decision was absolutely extraordinary,” he said. “And the Home Office’s letter was also astonishing and, frankly, unlawful, because it stated that while it was not their intention to separate the children from the rest of their family, one of the grounds for refusal was that one of the parents could return to the States with the boys and stay in touch with the rest of the family through email and Skype.
“It’s unlawful for the Home Office to suggest modern forms of communication can be used to maintain a relationship between a minor child and a parent,” Minnaar said. “In addition, the father has a job here and the mother home-schools all three children. If either parent leaves with the two older boys, then it’s a major disruption to their right to a family life.”
The Home Office’s letter gave the family two weeks to appeal. An appeal could cost up to £2,500 and take 18 months, during which time the children would have no right to see NHS doctors and have no passports. If the family didn’t appeal, the letter said, the children would have to leave the UK.
“We decided that we had to go right back to the beginning and do what the FCO had told us from the start we didn’t have to do: apply for permanent status for the boys from the US,” said Thies.
Patrick took immediate, open-ended leave from his NHS post and booked tickets for him to return to the US with his children on the next flight home 48 hours later. The family then informed the UK Immigration Enforcement office, as required, to arrange the return of the boys’ passports.
“They told us we couldn’t leave in two days’ time because they couldn’t do all the background checks on the children in time for them,” said Thies.
Patrick and his sons changed their flight, pushing it back another three days, to midday the following Monday. But again, the UK Immigration Enforcement office said the boys couldn’t leave, on the grounds that there wasn’t enough time to send the boys’ passports to Birmingham International airport. “There was nothing about this in the letter – just like there was nothing about the background checks – but we changed flights a third time,” said Thies. In total, the flights and the three changes cost the family around $3,000.
Finally back in the US – with Gillian Thies and the couple’s younger son waiting in the UK – Patrick Thies started the online application process, at a cost of almost $2,000 per visa. On Wednesday, however, the US consulate told him that the visas would take 12 weeks to process.
With Patrick now forced to stay in the US to be with the two older children, there are even fears that he could lose his visa himself if he is gone for too long, Gillian says.
“We don’t know what to do,” she said, weeping as she spoke. “We literally cannot afford for this to go on for another 12 weeks. I’ve never been apart from my kids for more than three days before. I’m totally devastated by this whole experience. I just want my family to be back together again. I can’t bear it.”
Andrew Pearson, the executive medical director at the Royal Orthopaedic hospital in Birmingham, who hired Patrick Thies, said he was “very frustrated and incredibly disappointed” by the Home Office’s refusal to grant the visas.
“We were unable to recruit anyone to do Patrick’s job from within the UK, so if he can’t stay, we’ll have to use locums – which will cost us at least two times more.”