A week ago I had an appointment with the British Home Office in Croydon to upgrade my immigration status from a sponsored Work Permit to Tier 1 Visa as a Highly-Skilled Worker, for which I am newly qualified.  My reasons for this are two-fold:  for one, I am job-hunting, and this grants me the ability to work for any employer in any industry within the UK, rather than relying on new sponsorship within my current profession; secondly, although I still have over two years remaining on my Work Permit, I thought it best to get in there fast to take advantage of the recently relaxed requirements for Tier 1 qualification before the new Tory coalition government clamps down on immigration policy.  It means that I can continue to live and work in the UK without dependence on a company or a partner, which is a pretty sweet deal, even if it does cost £1095 for the privilege.

Like anyone would, I jumped at the opportunity to combine my passion for navigating bureaucratic red tape with the thrilling roller-coaster ride that is the uncertainty of employment and immigration status.  It’s like visiting the DMV, but with your livelihood on the line!  Already a “highly-strung” personage, I’ve found the experience to be nerve-wracking, especially on top of the dozen job interviews I’ve had over the last couple of months.  I feel like I’ve been living in an uneasy state of limbo and have been hopeful that at least settling this aspect of my existence here in London would bring some clarity.

Alas, it was not to be.  Here’s what’s happened so far.

Several hours of call-waiting and subsequent conversations with visa agencies, the Immigration Bureau, and the Home Office, and I had a pretty good idea of the options for both myself and potential employers.  I struck gold with one particular employee I reached by phone at the Immigration Bureau, who pleasantly and helpfully articulated Everything I Needed to Know.  This guy was so knowledgeable and patient that I developed temporary amnesia with regards to every other experience in my life with governmental entities.  “So straight-forward,” I thought.  “This will be a piece of pish, as they say!”

So I downloaded the correct forms, had standardized photos taken for my application, and secured an appointment in six weeks’ time for a face-to-face interview in Croydon, the nearest Home Office that could process me.  It costs about 200 quid more for an in-person application than it does to apply by mail, but it’s usually processed on the day, and it seems worth it for the speed and security (in opposition, you can apply by post, wait four to six weeks, and be rejected without knowing why, exactly, just that you’re out £800).

I flipped through the application when I printed it out, and there didn’t appear to be any surprises.  I’d already qualified myself online, achieving 80 points out of a necessary 75 thanks to my age, income, education, UK-experience, English-speaking abilities, and access to “maintenance funds.”  I was golden.  What I didn’t do, however, was complete the form in full, because it needs to be entirely up-to-date and I reasoned it was better to wait until my most recent paycheck hit the bank, so I could use my most current payslips and bank statements for proof of income (you must provide two discreet sources).

At this point, I will grudgingly admit the shameful depth of my arrogance:  I assumed, because I am both a very organized person and from a majority English-speaking country, that if non-native English-speakers fill this stuff out on a regular basis, I couldn’t possibly encounter any problems.  So a couple days before my interview, I spent several hours getting all my paperwork in order and reading the form and supplementary instructions in full detail.  I had everything highlighted and labeled and filled out in crisp, bold caps, neatly paper-clipped and filed in colored folders. I admired my handiwork – so efficient, so thorough, so attractively presented!

And then, in the midst of my filling and filing, I discovered a potential snag.  One requirement, quite explicitly stated, is that applicants provide their original certificate of qualification, meaning my actual, physical graduation diploma.  I scoffed, although this made me a bit nervous.

I have a scanned copy of my diploma, of course, along with photocopies of everything from my social security card to my birth certificate.  However, this is not stuff I packed to bring with me across the pond, thinking it logical to leave in my parents’ house or in my safe deposit box at the bank.  My American college is fully recognized by the British government – this is not some potentially suspect qualification from an online diploma-mill, or from a rural polytechnic in.. in… deepest Uzbekistan!  I’m an American, damn it, nearly Ivy League!  And besides, I had to show not only my diploma when I applied for my Work Permit, but a signed and official fax from the college registrar translating my diploma.  Because it is in Latin.  Which I thought was silly.

But naturally, I have all that documentation, along with my original Work Permit issue.  I have my old passport, with which I entered the UK, and even managed to dig up the full flight information for my voyage of entry from 2007 (yes, they asked for the flight number – and I have it!  See how organized!).  I am resolutely, almost disappointingly, un-shady.  I thought back to my helpful friend at the Immigration Bureau.  Surely, when I sit down face-to-face for this little interview, all the tidy evidence of my immaculate documentation and well-presented, charming American self will put aside the need for my original diploma, along with the thousand quid I am handing over for the honor of paying taxes to the British government for no pension.  We are reasonable people!

Despite my internal rationalizations, I decided to play it safe as I could.  I phoned the Home Office and pled my case to a mumbling dolt.  I entered the country before the Highly-Skilled Migrant Programme was enacted, I explained, but my Work Permit is essentially the same thing, and it states that you do not have to provide your original qualification a second time.  You let me in the country before based on my documentation, and there’s no reason I should have to provide the original again. There is a loophole here!

“Says you need the original,” he said.

“But is also says you don’t if you’re an HSM, which I would have been had I entered the UK only two months later,” I patiently repeated.  “Don’t you see?  I can provide a copy, and I even had the registrar send scanned and faxed copies of my full transcript as supporting evidence, all signed and certified.”

“Says you need the original,” he said.

“Hmthp, hmthp, aarrrrgh!” I eventually replied, after more of this scintillating back-and-forth, and hung up.  My appointment was the next morning, so I might as well stave off my frustration and prepare to explain things in a calm and civilized manner to someone more nuanced.

I rose at 6:15 and made the anxious journey to Croydon, repetitively reviewing my documents on the train and checking my hair in my hand-mirror to make sure I looked especially wholesome.  The Home Office was only a few minutes walk from the station, across a busy road with large signs on the median imploring pedestrians to take the underground passage, or risk becoming roadkill.  Even an hour early for my 9:00 am appointment, a humbled and mixed mass of humanity was loitering outside the building, scuffing their shoes and looking sullen.  Basically, it was as unwelcoming and depressing a scene as one would imagine, nicely complemented by the gray skies and unseasonable chill in the air.

Although advised to arrive 30 minutes early for security clearance, the guards wouldn’t let me in until 8:30.  The website mentioned there was a cafe in the building, so I asked if I could get a cup of coffee and wait.  The guards kindly suggested I take my eager-beaver ass to the mall McDonald’s back across the Roadway of Death, which I did, to stuff down an Egg McMuffin and purchase a coffee that was confiscated when I returned to the building at 8:30 sharp.

There, my fellow status-seekers and I shuffled through a basic airport security set-up and joined a queue, where I was cut in line by a pushy American man with his family in tow.  Fucking entitled Americans, I thought.  Everyone else is standing by nicely, but you’re just sooo important.  Nevertheless, I quickly was ushered into an inner room, with multiple immigration agents seated behind enforced windows, much like a bank or a train station.  Directed to window #3, I was reassured to find myself assigned to a smiley man with a gentle Caribbean accent, who was vastly amused every time I answered his questions with “No, Sir” or “Yes, Sir.”  His friendliness put me more at ease, as he flipped through my passports and the paperwork I slid to him under the window.  After confirming that everything had been filled out in full, and that I had the required financial documentation, he stamped my application and pronounced me ready to move forward.

“There’s just one thing,” I said, and explained my concerns and reasoning about the diploma photocopy.  This was critical, because if I progressed, I’d pay all my money upfront and couldn’t recover it if rejected.

“It seems fine to me,” he said, with a wink.  “Don’t worry, Darlin’.  I’ll tell you what, though, I’ll go back and double-check for you, to be on the safe side.”  He left his station with my details in hand, while I half-heartedly eavesdropped on the applicants to either side and resisted a never-before-experienced urge to chew on my fingernails.

When he returned only a minute later, his face was grave.  He was so sorry, but he’d been informed that only the original diploma would do.  But did you explain to them?  I asked.  About the Work Permit and the HSMP loophole, and the fact that I had my transcripts, and that my diploma lives in Texas?  It was no good – the transcripts were scanned and faxed, and that was unacceptable.

Unfortunately, I am a weller, and the tears were running down my face within a split second.  As I stuffed my documents and passports back into my travel bag, I felt even worse for making the nice man feel bad too and lose all his twinkle.  However stupid I considered the requirement, this was my fault, and my guilt and self-pity and self-abasement made me snuffle.

Even more embarrassing, I was out on the sidewalk by ten to 9:00, red-eyed and blonde-haired, and convinced everyone who witnessed my relatively silent breakdown was under the impression I was being deported to my questionable Eastern-European country of origin.  I called my boyfriend and wailed down the phone.

“I may as well go into the office now,” I sobbed, “especially since I’m going to work there forever and may as well die there.”  (The histrionics – only slightly exaggerated).  The Boy Person pointed out that, as long as I had booked the day off, there was no reason I shouldn’t go back to London for a nice lunch and an afternoon lie-down, which sounded like a good plan.  Even better, I remembered that there was a sizable Marks & Spencer in the Croydon mall, and I was desperately in need of some plain black tee-shirts for exercise class.  Although I am not a great shopper, retail therapy was exactly what I needed to reaffirm my self-esteem and sense of value as a contributory Capitalist.

So I did.  I found black tee-shirts for £5 apiece, as well as some Sloaney capris, and then further calmed myself by purchasing wine, flowers, and mouth-watering, impractical hors d’oeuvres on sale in the food section.  The store was quiet for that hour of the day, populated with Mummies with kids in tow and smartly-dressed old ladies.  So tasteful, so upper-middle-class, so British, so soothing.  I even felt benevolently towards the woman in front of me who spent £250 on flowers and champagne, while her docile and slick-haired children waited dutifully.  I don’t not belong here, I thought.  This is a momentary setback.

I emailed my parents, and they reluctantly plied apart the very expensive custom frame encasing my diploma and sent it to me, at expense.  Miraculously, I secured a second appointment for tomorrow morning, only 10 days since my last.  Part of my panic was due to the assumption it would take another six weeks, but suddenly, I am set!  Part of my proof for “maintenance funds” is a print-out of my savings account, for which I only receive statements every six months – just to be clever, I took those print-outs to my bank and had them stamp them, so they cannot be denied (probably excessive, but I have no urge to visit Croydon a third time).

Earlier today, I spread out all my paperwork to flip through again, as a final check.  I moved cash from my savings into my checking account so there could be no confusion.  Tick, tick, tick, all appears to be in order.  And then I parsed a few pages at the back of the form, pages I had only skimmed before, as they’re attached in reference to applicants who have a representative fill out their form due to language restrictions.  Which is how I spied this:

“Where a document is not in English or Welsh, the original must be accompanied by a fully certified translation by a professional translator.  This translation must include details of the translator’s credentials and confirmation that it is an accurate translation of the original document.  It must also be dated and include the original signature of the translator.”

My diploma?  Is still in Latin, because my college is so damn historical like that.  And so it looks like I will show up tomorrow, again with a caveat, and possibly look at booking a third appointment.  I actually screamed like a banshee, freaking out the Boy Person and rattling the window panes.  If worst comes to worst, I guess I can look forward to a self-sympathy purse from M&S to counteract my self-chastisement and anger.  Surely third time will be the charm.

(Image 1 from the Daily Mail; Image 2 from the Diploma Center; Image 3 from The London Daily News; Image 4 from The Telegraph).