An American woman with two disabled British children has been threatened with removal from the UK, in what lawyers and campaigners have described as “utterly reprehensible” conduct by the Home Office.
Lauren Cullen, 31, was returning from a holiday in the US last October when she was told by Border Force officials that she would be removed from the country, which would have meant her children – aged eight and nine and both of whom suffer from learning disabilities – would have to have been taken into care.
The removal directions were quashed days before she was due to be deported by a High Court judge, who accused the Home Office of failing to take into consideration the best interests of her young children in breach of UK law.
But despite this and although Ms Cullen had her UK status confirmed in January, the department is still holding her on immigration bail, meaning they have retained her passport and she is liable to be detained at any time.
It also means the 31-year-old is unable to travel to the US to see her sick mother, who was recently placed in a care home after having a stroke three months ago.
Lawyers and campaigners said it was “astonishing” that no attention had been paid to the best interests of Ms Cullen’s children and that the failure to return her passport highlighted “complete incompetence” in the Home Office.
Ms Cullen and her British husband moved to the UK from Ireland with their children in 2017 on a family permit which they were granted under EU law. She has since been caring full-time for her two children, one of whom has severe autism.
In October 2018, the US national travelled to America for two weeks due to the father being ill. On her return, she was told she had no right to enter, and days later she received a notice from the Home Office stating that there was a ticket booked for her removal the following Thursday morning.
Speaking to The Independent, Ms Cullen said: “I was just panicking because I couldn’t even contact a barrister over the weekend. My children would’ve gone into care because my husband was out of the country at the time. I was living like there was no tomorrow. It felt like everything was falling apart.
“They said that if I didn’t board the flight I’d be arrested where I lived and forcibly removed. We were making preparations with social services and school. My children would have been devastated. This is the life that they know.”
Ms Cullen’s barrister Morgan Read successfully sought an emergency injunction on the grounds that the department had failed to consider the welfare of her children in breach of UK law.
Despite this, and the fact that she was granted a British residence card in January, Ms Cullen is still on immigration bail, and the Home Office still has her passport.
“I felt like I was finally getting over it, that the judge said I could stay. It just doesn’t make sense. They’ve agreed that I do have the right to be here. It’s like I’m allowed to be here but not allowed to leave,“ said Ms Cullen. “It’s baffling really that they don’t seem to consider any human part of this. I feel like I’m just a number. They wanted to protect the border by tearing a mother from her children.
“My mother is starting to forget who I am because I’m not there. I just feel lost. This time is precious and they’re taking that from me.”
Ms Cullen’s solicitor Arta Heath, managing director of MyUKVisas, said the Home Office’s attempt to deport the mother-of-two was “absolutely outrageous”.
She said the passport issue was a symptom of both the hostile environment and “complete incompetence” in the department.
“This is a terrible situation. The Home Office said it knew she had British citizen children but that they could stay with their father, which is absolutely outrageous. They claimed that because had spent two weeks without their mum they could be without her forever,” said Ms Heath.
“But the issue now is the administrative process. There is no reason for them to hold onto her passport, but they haven’t sent it to her and the removal direction process is still continuing, meaning she can’t go see her mum.
“It shows how the inability of the Home Office to understand law and procedure, coupled with the hostile environment, is leading to shocking decisions being made.”
Responding to the case, shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said: “It seems the Home Office have ignored what is humane and sensible. Instead they have continued with the tick-box exercises, which have characterised this Tory government’s hostile environment.
“Until these dreadful policies end, families will live with the threat of being torn apart.”
Celia Clarke, director of Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID), said this was not the first time the Home Office had “utterly failed to take into account children’s best interests in an immigration case”.
She continued: “It is quite frankly astonishing that no attention was paid to the very clear interests of the British children in this sorry situation. Fortunately the children were not taken into care and their mother was allowed to enter but only as a result of an injunction that she took out.
“We have had clients whose children have been taken into care as a result of the Home Office detaining a parent. This is completely contrary to the Home Office’s own policy and statutory duty and is utterly reprehensible.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “It would be inappropriate to comment on ongoing legal proceedings.”