It's 2006 and I'm making my way to the British Council headquarters in London after catching an early flight down from Edinburgh. I'm young, nervous and excited; in a few months, I will be heading out to South America to work for a year as a language assistant. I've lived in Edinburgh all my life and the thought of being so far away from home for so long is overwhelming. I look around me. I can't help but feel slightly out of place: the others, who have formed groups and are chatting away merrily, seem to know something I don't. Perhaps it's because they are all language graduates, whereas my first degree was computer science. In an attempt to break the ice, I turn to a couple of girls and ask: "so do you guys speak Spanish then?" They just laugh. My Spanish is rudimentary at best.
Fast forward ten years. For all intents and purposes, I am now bilingual (although it's still a word I'm hesitant to use). I'm older and just as nervous but this time, as I return to South America to live, the previous excitement is replaced by a mix of sadness and resentment. Resentment because UK immigration rules have reduced me to the status of a second class citizen in my own country; sadness because I know that if I am to start a family in the next few years, there is a very real chance that I would not be able to bring it back to the UK. My crime? To have married a non-EU resident.
The visa rules for spouses are unjust on so many levels, it's hard to know where to start. I count myself lucky that I have no problems meeting the minimum income threshold of £18,600. However, others are not so fortunate and were our income to suddenly fall due to illness or quite simply bad luck, there is a very real possibility my wife would be sent home, regardless of any children we might have. As someone who has paid taxes all my working life, I suddenly find myself deprived of the safety net to which I have contributed for fear of jeopardising our future visa prospects. This is not a hypothetical situation, it is happening as I write: families have already been split up as a result of the UK's visa rules.
Or perhaps it's because they keep changing the goalposts. My wife's visa, which has already doubled in price, would now be subject to an extra £500 NHS surcharge, despite the fact that when we lived in the UK we both worked and paid the same taxes as anyone else. Her Cambridge Advanced English certificate, which she sat before first coming to the UK, is no longer accepted, which means she will now have to sit a different test if we wish to apply again, followed by another test after two years under the government's new Learn English proposals. It's a financial drain -of the order of £6,000 over five years to obtain permanent residency- and that's to say nothing of the prospect of further hikes to visa application fees.
Or perhaps it's just the thought of living with the anxiety and uncertainty of whether we will be able to remain together in the long term. The more I think about it, the more I realise it would be madness to start a family on such shifting sands.
In contrast, here in South America, where I hold permanent residency and am subject to no such bureaucratic whims or restrictions, open arms awaited us. An escape, of sorts, from this Kafkaesque nightmare. When I first set out with the British Council almost ten years ago, I believed the country I was representing to be fair and progressive, a country which, if you were honest, worked hard and paid your taxes, would see you alright. Those are still values I hold. However, as I watch obstacle pile on top of obstacle to coming home, it is not the country I recognise today.