Deal or no deal, that’s the question on everyone’s lips right now. But for me and the 140,000 other European carers and stay-at-home parents living in the UK, it makes no odds. Either way we are being faced with separation from the people we love. Either way I am being told that I am unworthy of citizenship, unworthy of my family. All because I chose to do what any mother would do in my circumstances and give my son the specialised care he needed.
I was 31 when I had my son, who was diagnosed with autism and learning difficulties. I loved my career as a journalist, but it soon became clear I could not work outside the home as well as give him the care he needed. In the absence of specialist schools or services near to where we live in Salisbury, my husband and I made the decision that I would care for him full time.
For this sin, I have been deemed “economically inactive”. I have been warned I am therefore unlikely to qualify for British citizenship. The 3 million campaign, the movement of European citizens living in the UK, estimates that 320,000 people are at risk of not qualifying for settled status, either because they are apparently economically inactive, or because an understaffed Home Office is struggling to keep up with applications and demanding additional paperwork.
I have had 13 years of early mornings, late nights, of difficult situations beyond most people’s imagination. No one pays me to do this work – and work it is, despite what Theresa May might tell me. To be told that this work is not work, just because it isn’t paid is an insult. To be threatened with deportation on top of that is unspeakable. And yet this is where we are.
Last month, May thankfully scrapped the £65 charge for EU citizens living in the UK to apply for settled status after the 29 March 2019. Initially, we rejoiced: was it the glimmer of hope we needed? But since this fleeting victory, the farcical cruelty of the application process has been revealed. To apply for settled status you have to prove your identity – but this can only be done on a latest model Android device. Those of us with older phones – or iPhones – have to go into one of only 13 centres around the UK to prove we are who we say we are. The only centre in Scotland is in Edinburgh. There isn’t one in Cornwall – the closest centre is in Bath, in Somerset.
The Home Office seems impervious to the fact that lives are complicated and that people may have gaps in employment because they were made redundant or the company they worked for went bust. Many of my friends have spent hours trawling their emails to check dates for every single holiday or work-related trip abroad they have taken in the last five years, to provide evidence that they have not breached rules regarding how long residents are allowed to leave the country each year. The most upsetting aspect of settled status is that it has been designed without taking into account personal relationships: marriages, civil partnerships or children. All that matters is whether EU citizens can prove that they have been, to use home office secretary, Sajid Javid’s revealing term, “assets” to the British economy. And because I stopped working so I could care for my child, I am not an asset. I am a burden. And so I face deportation.
The Home Office seems to have learnt nothing from the Windrush scandal. My British friends are aghast when I tell them that my 14-year marriage to my British husband, and being a mother of a 13-year-old British son, are irrelevant. “Surely,” they ask, incredulous, “you can stay if you are married and have children?” Even if they voted leave, they did not vote for families to be ripped apart.
The truth is, I’ve not yet dared to apply. I can’t face it. The idea that a computer will say no and I will be separated from my son doesn’t bear thinking about. If I am rejected, where does the government imagine I would go? England is my home, not Poland, the country I left 15 years ago, where I have no property and no job prospects. Am I to live with my elderly mother in her one-bedroom flat, while my husband becomes a single parent to our disabled son, and juggles a full-time job and full-time care?
Behind talk of backstops and borders, there are real people whose families are being torn apart while parliament plays politics with our lives. My only hope now is for a people’s vote. Brexit is ushering in more than a hostile environment towards migrants. It is changing the face of the country I have called home for most of my adult life. I have worked here. I have loved here. I have a son and husband here. My life is here. I don’t deserve to be told by an automated message on a mobile phone application that I no longer belong. • Anna Maria Tuckett is a former journalist, writer and full-time carer