Obama urged to show more clemency than we do
Philip Hartley-Wall is a 42-year-old man born in the UK whose family moved him to the USA when he was nine, and he lived there until 2009 when he got into trouble for wrongly answering a question about his nationality at the US/Mexico border. For that, he served seven months and was deported on release. His family, namely his wife and a 12-year-old daughter who has a learning disability, still live in California and only got to see him for the first time last week; the family have had to move house because of the collapse of Hartley-Wall’s business:
Philip says he never particularly wanted to make the 5,700-mile trip to the land of his birth. Like many Americans, he never even bothered applying for a passport, having originally entered the US on his mother’s.
He had a green card, giving him “permanent alien residency status”. He had a driving licence and had built up a small tiling business, and claims to have paid taxes for years. “Despite being born in England, I do not feel remotely British. I’ve never thought of myself as being anything other than American,” he said this week …
However, because he had never actually gained US citizenship, he landed in hot water on a brief trip to Mexico when he mistakenly told an immigration officer on the way back that he was indeed from the land of the brave.
What followed was a punishment which, as Burnham argued in his letter to Obama, was “totally disproportionate to the original offence”. Philip had originally been arrested on suspicion of drug and firearm offences after border police found drug paraphernalia and a disassembled gun in the back of the car in which he was a passenger. But he was eventually only charged with “making a false statement to a federal officer” – a felony – by wrongly claiming to be American.
He pleaded guilty and served seven months in a federal prison.
On his release date he expected to be sent home but instead claims he was handcuffed, shackled and chained to another prisoner and put on a bus to an immigration detention centre in Haskell, Texas. Under US law, any green card holder found guilty of a felony can be deported.
The US law in question is the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act or Ira-Ira, which was passed in the 1990s after a California politician made political capital by “getting tough” on foreigners who broke the law in California. It allows for any permanent residents to be deported for any past offence, even if it is noticed years after a sentence was served, even if it was trivial, and even if the offender has an American spouse and children, or a business in the USA, or had previously been eligible to apply for citizenship. In one case the state tried to deport a woman who had been adopted from Germany as an infant but whose adoptive parents never applied for citizenship for her, over a playground scuffle when she was 16. That was abandoned when she was pardoned after a public outcry, but many people have been deported and separated from families. (There is an article about the history of this law and the heartless idiocy surrounding it here.)
In this case, his MP, Andy Burnham, has written a personal letter to the US President to appeal for him to reverse the decision directly. However, he might do better to try and get the family reunited over here, except of course that British immigration laws make it necessary for a British citizen to have a job paying a certain amount to have a chance of getting a spouse to join him, although he ran a tiling business for many years in California and so might be able to secure a job in that industry here.
It underlines the importance of respecting the integrity of the family and the devastation caused when people are needlessly separated because of politics being played with people’s lives. We like to imagine that it is only the offender that suffers, but in fact a whole family is ripped apart and the remaining members often impoverished by the loss of a wage-earner. Both Labour and Tory governments have answered the call of the Tory commercial press to clamp down on “foreign criminals” and send them home, regardless of their family ties in the UK. The Tories and their press pour scorn on the European Convention on Human Rights for enshrining the right to family life and attack judges for ruling on the basis of it that people cannot be deported when they have family ties (and they invariably forget that their British family also has a right to a family life). Particularly during the manufactured “foreign criminals scandal” of 2007, people were locked up and threatened with deportation for long-forgotten offences for which they had served time (and some not even that serious) years ago, including people who had served in the British armed forces and those who had lived here since childhood. This country has also threatened to expel people who have blood ties to this country (particularly older people born abroad whose mothers, but not fathers, are British). Our mentality when it comes to immigration is not hugely more enlightened than America’s, and is similarly driven by a press that knows that unthinking harshness sells papers.
Our immigration laws should not be based on what sells papers. Keeping families together must be paramount, especially when the interests of British children (all the more so if the child is disabled) are at stake. We cannot make the Americans change their stupid laws — they do not think that much of us, whatever we do for them — but we can change ours. In the very likely event that Burnham’s appeals fall on deaf ears, all efforts should be made to reunite that family here.
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