Jeremy Corbyn has accused the Home Office of putting the UK’s global reputation for higher education and research at risk by refusing visas to foreign academics married to British citizens.
Academics engaged in overseas research must frequently travel abroad to work. The Home Office, however, uses the time spent out of the country by foreign academics while they are working to deny their applications for settlement visas.
Jennifer Wexler is a US citizen who is married to a British man. She has had continuous residence in the UK for the past 11 years and has been studying or in employment at some of the UK’s best universities and museums for all that time.
An archeologist with a masters and PhD from University College London, Wexler has been working for the British Museum in London for the past four years, but her recent application for indefinite leave to remain in the UK has been refused. She has launched an appeal.
Corbyn has sent a letter to the Home Office in support of her case, but it has not been answered.
Wexler said: “The reason for the denial is the number of days I have spent out of the country. But all of my so-called absences have been explicitly related to archeological research and work that was affiliated and sanctioned by UK institutions.
“It all fell within the requirements of my relevant UK visa at that time, with paperwork provided to the Home Office. During all my time abroad, my registered home address has always been in the UK. I continued to pay rent, bills and council tax in the UK,” she said.
The Home Office also considered Wexler’s human rights and right to private and family life. Accepting that her marriage was genuine, it nevertheless said it would not be a “hardship” for the couple if Wexler were to go back to the US for at least two months to apply for a spousal visa.
Alternatively, said the Home Office’s letter of refusal, her British husband – another highly trained archeologist whose passport was taken away for three months by the Home Office during his wife’s application – could leave the UK and move to the “United states of American” with his wife.
Wexler said: “The threat hanging over me of being thrown out of the country at any point has been massively destabilising and damaging both in terms of my career and my personal life. We feel completely let down by this country. The Home Office have had my passport for over a year and I have no idea when I will get it back. I have not seen my elderly parents in over a year and a half now.
“Why would the Home Office want to get rid of two highly skilled, UK-trained heritage professionals providing valuable contributions to the British Museum and a major UK higher education institution? Most countries want to retain highly trained experts, not push them out.”
Sam Nixon, Wexler’s husband, said: “I am appalled, shocked and extremely angry that as a British citizen I can suddenly be casually told by the government to move away from the country where I was born and have lived for 40 years, to go and start my life again somewhere else in a place where I do not even have legal status. It makes me completely question my status as a British citizen.”
Wexler said she knows of many foreign academics who have had their visa applications refused for the same reason. “This is a huge problem for academics who are engaged in overseas research as it makes it impossible to properly conduct research that is a fundamental part of our work and which contributes to the UK’s international standing for excellence in higher education,” she said.
Wexler’s lawyer, Victoria Sharkey of MediVisas UK immigration service, said she was “bewildered” by the Home Office’s refusal and criticised their “incredibly subjective” rules. “The Home Office caseworker has scope to decide when excess absences can be waived and these are not applied consistently,” she said.
“It has always been a massive problem for academics – we have had similar situations, for example, with musicians studying at prestigious London conservatoires who have been penalised for attending performances and conservatoires overseas, as well as language students, and with students compelled to return to their home countries during vacation periods.”
Corbyn said the Home Office frequently failed to exercise discretion in its rules when it came to academics.
“The point I have made is that Dr Wexler is an obvious asset to the UK due to her expertise and education,” he said. “This is far from a one-off case: there are many academics who have to travel overseas to properly conduct their research and the Home Office should be more flexible.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “It would be inappropriate to comment on ongoing legal proceedings.”