Two Durham University academics facing deportation to Mexico in a matter of days say they are being forced to leave the UK as punishment “for doing our jobs”.
On Saturday, the Home Office gave anthropologist Dr Ernesto Schwartz-Marín and Dr Arely Cruz-Santiago, a human geographer, two weeks to leave the country with their 11-year-old daughter after their appeal to stay was rejected.
The couple spent nine months in Mexico between 2014 and 2015 after they were given a grant by the government-funded Economic and Social Research Council, where they developed a DNA database to help record the thousands of people who are missing as a result of the country’s war on drugs.
But the Home Office has rejected Schwartz-Marín’s application for Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK, arguing he spent too much time outside of the country during his visa period.
The professor, who arrived in the UK in 2007, told HuffPost UK he was “super shocked” by the Home Office decision.
“We are being punished for fulfilling our job descriptions and that’s absolutely wrong,” Schwartz-Marín said.
Under the UK’s rules on visas, non-EU migrants cannot spend more than 180 days abroad - unless they are “attending to a national or international humanitarian or environmental crisis”.
However, the Home Office has argued that the couple’s work in Mexico does not qualify - something many academics and campaigners strongly disagree with.
“In Mexico, there are 160,000 people dead and around 32,000 people disappeared because of the war on drugs,” Schwartz-Marín explained.
“Our mission was to create this independent DNA database to record the missing - we have one of the few independent forensic databases in the world.”
Barrister Jo Maugham, who has helped raise more than £11,000 to help the couple fight the Home Office decision, called the ruling “bizarre in the extreme”.
“They are essentially funded by our own government to do work in Mexico,” he said.
“So on one hand, the government is supporting them for the work they are doing, and then on the other the Home Office is deporting them for doing that work.”
Schwartz-Marín said it was “really hard” to break the news to their 11-year-old daughter, who has lived in the UK since she was eight months old.
“We had to tell our daughter that the place that she has thought of as home, where she can study and be with her friends, is now kicking her out,” he said.
“And the only reason we can give her is because we have been doing work. It was really hard.”
There are also fears the family could be in danger if they are forced to return to Mexico.
“Mexico is a profoundly dangerous place for people who are taking on those who benefit from the narco trade,” Maugham said.
Schwartz-Marín said: “Whenever I go to Mexico, there is always a security plan.
“It’s very detailed because you are gambling with lots of things so you need to be very prepared.
“The Home Office are just sending me back to Mexico without notice and I have to be there next week - that’s not a very bright idea.”
He added: “The work we do is only possible because we are Mexicans living in the UK.
“Without that international membership, it’s really hard to speak against these atrocities.”
In a statement about the case, a Home Office spokesperson said: “Dr Ernesto Schwartz-Marin applied for Indefinite Leave to Remain in October 2017.
“It was refused on the basis that he was absent from the UK for more than 180 days within the five consecutive 12 month period preceding the date of the application,” they said, adding that the decision was made “taking into account evidence” about the academic’s absences from the UK.
“Anyone without valid leave to remain is expected to leave the country voluntarily, or face removal action if they don’t.”