Georgia College student faces deportation to England on 21st birthday, leaving family behind

rmanley@macon.comSeptember 30, 2012 

MILLEDGEVILLE -- Lauren Bell calls America home.

She’s lived a decade in Georgia, yet hasn’t picked up a Southern drawl. But the British accent she brought over as an 11-year-old is gone -- except for when she drops the occasional foreign-sounding word on friends.

Bell, a junior at Georgia College & State University, and her family came from Great Britain in 2003 when her father accepted a job in Sparta. They settled in the quiet antebellum town of Madison, bought a house and started paying taxes.

Now, Bell faces deportation in January, when she turns 21 and will no longer be considered a dependent. She has a few relatives overseas, but her parents and younger sister, 17-year-old Emily, are here.

The family applied for a green card, which grants permanent residence, for Lauren in 2004, but her father says immigration officials rejected it in its final stages. Apparently they did not care for the wording in his employer’s original “help wanted” ad.

“I’m worried,” Lauren’s father, Kevin Bell, said. “I want to try to do something about at least getting this changed for Lauren’s sake, but also Emily’s. She’s been here since the age of 7. All their friends are here. This is their home. It’s all our home. We all want to stay.”

The Bells have launched a website, letlaurenstay.com, that includes a link to a petition. They’ve also enlisted the help of Georgia’s U.S. senators, Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss.

Lauren describes her possible deportation as “immoral,” especially considering President Obama’s decision this year to stop deporting illegal minor aliens who meet criteria of the so-called DREAM Act. Various forms of the legislation give special consideration -- even fast-tracking citizenship in some versions -- to illegal aliens who complete at least two years of college.

“It’s extremely frustrating when you know you’ve done everything right, everything in your power to make sure we all came here legally,” her father said. “We’ve done nothing wrong. It seems we’re being punished for something that’s completely beyond our control.”

Lauren, who responded to questions by e-mail between an illness and studying for tests in statistics and economics, said she is “absolutely outraged” by the oversight in the president’s decision.

“How on Earth there could have been that much of an oversight in the legislation is just beyond me,” she said. “It’s extremely unfair and unjust to punish those that were brought here legally as children by their parents and then deny them the right to stay simply because they turn the age of 21, yet give the green light, so to speak, to those that were brought here illegally.”

‘We want to stay’

In 2003, Kevin Bell interviewed in London with SGD North America in Sparta. He got the job in research and development for the company, which makes glass bottles for perfume and pharmaceuticals. With an H-4 work visa, he rented a house in Madison, “a nice place to live,” then bought a home.

As dependents, his wife, Karen, and daughters, Lauren and Emily, are not allowed to hold jobs. The company filed an application for green cards for the next year.

Lauren recalls that moving to a new school in a new country was “a little terrifying,” but she adjusted.

“After a little while of living in the U.S. and having made those new friends, I just felt at home. Everything just kind of fell into place and became normal to me. In fact, after having lived here in the U.S. for a while, I used to hate going back to England for small vacations.

“Everything that had once been normal to me became extremely foreign, and all I wanted to do was return home to the U.S. Over the years, my memories of England have become extremely faint, almost to the point where it almost just seems like a dream, like I never really lived there at all.”

The green card application appeared to be advancing without problem until the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service pulled it in its final stages, Kevin Bell said.

“Where the rubber stamp is approved or denied, somebody went, ‘No,’ even after five years,” he said. “Unfortunately, it was denied on a technicality. They said they were unhappy with the original wording of the advertisement for the position. So the company appealed.”

The appeal is pending.

In the meantime, the Bells are doing all they can to bring attention to Lauren’s possible deportation. She says the student body at Georgia College is mostly unaware of her situation, but Madison residents, especially her former classmates, are rallying to her cause.

“Had she been brought over here illegally under the new legislation (Dream Act) that has just been put in place, she would have been fine.” said Kevin Bell.

The Bells have reached out to U.S. Sens. Chambliss and Isakson. A spokesman for Chambliss said his office does not comment on requests from constituents, but Chambliss wrote in a letter to Bell that he would “help ensure that your case is given every possible consideration.” Bell received a letter a week ago from Isakson’s office that indicated an Isakson aide had inquired about the case.

In an e-mailed response to the inquiry, an immigration service officer said the Bells’ applications remain denied and called the case “complex to say the least.”

Kevin Bell says lawyers have told the family the only way Lauren could stay is to get an F-1 international student’s visa.

“There’s no guarantee that would even be granted,” he said. “That’s normally for students who travel from their home overseas, then travel back overseas. Obviously, that’s not the case over here.”

Even if that visa is granted, Lauren, a marketing major, would have to pay out-of-state tuition of about $27,000 a year. For a one-income family, paying in-state tuition, which runs about $6,000 to $8,000, is difficult enough.

“In the time we’ve been here since 2003, my wife and my two daughters have been unable to work. It’s been a real struggle. Lauren’s almost 21, and she’s not had any part-time jobs to help pay the college fees and all the rest of it,” Kevin Bell said.

“We are residents of Georgia, have been since 2003, paying taxes. (We) bought a house. We have no intention of going back and just want to live a normal life and stay here.”

Lauren says going back to Great Britain would be “devastating” to her hopes for a normal life.

“I feel like having to move back to the U.K. would bring a halt to everything. Like many others my age, I am trying to get through college and start a life of my own for myself, maybe even get married and start a family here someday. But now that this is happening, that feels a lot less likely to happen than it once seemed.”

Being forced to leave “would be a million times worse” for her younger sister, Lauren said.

“She has lived in the U.S. for practically her whole life. I don’t believe she has any actual memories of having lived in the U.K. at all, She only knows what she has seen from having gone back to visit.”

Her father is still hopeful the appeal will be successful and the family will get their green cards before Lauren’s birthday.

“That way all the problems disappear.”

To contact writer Rodney Manley, call 744-4623.

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