Broward family oceans apart after visas yanked
A Scottish family of five has been split overseas and may have to sell its two Broward County ice cream shops after the mother’s and daughter’s visas were revoked during a trip to London.
(MIAMI HERALD) Surrounded by waffle cones, tubs of neon-colored, gourmet ice cream and cartoon caricatures of smiling cows inside his Davie business, Andrew McKnight thinks of his family and struggles to keep the tears at bay.
Once the promise of a new life away from his sleepy hometown of Kilmarnock, Scotland, the Maggie Moo’s ice cream shop is now a daily reminder that his wife and 15-year-old daughter remain in immigration limbo in the United Kingdom.
But being reunited with them could mean losing everything the family worked for in South Florida.
The reason for the predicament: In the eyes of federal authorities, the McKnights’ two ice cream stores are not profitable.
“It’s tearing us apart,” said McKnight, 43, who hasn’t seen his wife Alison, the family’s primary visa holder, and daughter, Samantha, since they left for the United Kingdom on June 14.
Though the family’s visas have been extended by U.S. officials and are valid in the country until April 2011, the McKnights needed consulate officials in London to officially renew the documents in order to allow the McKnights to come and go freely from the United States.
They believed the meeting in London would be a quick and easy fix that would finally allow the family a hassle-free vacation outside the United States.
They were wrong.
U.S. officials in London denied their application, saying tax returns showed the family lost $30,000 in 2008. In rejecting them, they cited an immigration rule that states a visa-holder’s business must provide an economic benefit to the surrounding community and support more than just the investing family.
U.S. authorities declined to comment, citing privacy laws that prohibit discussion of individual visa applications.
But in a July 2 e-mail to the McKnights’ former attorney, a U.S. consulate official in London said the business had not grown enough to validate the family’s investor visas.
“Although your clients may have invested a substantial amount, the business has not grown adequately and has not generated enough profit to support the McKnight family,” wrote Seth Patch of the U.S. Embassy.
The McKnights’ journey to America began in 2006 when they entered on a tourist visa. The following year, they were given an investment visa after buying into the Maggie Moo’s franchise. Last year, they opened a second franchise on Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale.
The family insists their accountant made a serious error. They say they, in fact, the business earned $20,000 in profits last year, even after purchasing a second Maggie Moo’s for $50,000.
But the decision to deny investment and tourist visas for Alison and Samantha have left the mother and daughter stuck in Scotland. They are living with a relative while Andrew and sons Robert, 21, and Paul, 18, remain in Weston.
They say they have also been denied visa waivers that typically allow visitors from the United Kingdom into the United States without a visa.
Andrew Koerner, a Coral Gables immigration attorney hired last week by the McKnights, said unless U.S. officials in London reverse their opinion, the family will be caught in a situation where reuniting in the United Kingdom will mean losing their $350,000-plus investment in South Florida.
“Were Andrew McKnight to leave the country, he wouldn’t be allowed back in,” Koerner said. “It’s a Catch-22.”
Koerner said he was surprised the consulate official in London ruled that the family’s business has not been profitable, when only two years have gone by and most investment visa holders are allowed five years before their business is scrutinized.
He said the new visa application packet will emphasize the family’s plans and new opportunities, such as catering contracts with Nova Southeastern University and Humana. Ultimately, the McKnights say they intended to continue purchasing ice cream franchises until their investments total $1 million, allowing them to apply for U.S. permanent residence, also known as green cards.
Andrew McKnight has turned to his congressional representatives for help — without much luck.
He met Aug. 17 with the staff of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, which asked the U.S. Embassy in London to reconsider the application.
“Our office requested that the Embassy reevaluate the McKnights’ case,” Jonathan Beeton, spokesman for Wasserman Schultz, said in a written statement. “They did reevaluate, but came to the same conclusion. The family’s next option would be to submit a new application with additional supporting documentation.”
Andrew McKnight said Friday that if his wife is again denied a visa, he sees no other alternative than to put his businesses up for sale and return to Scotland.
That’s a painful possibility for Samantha McKnight, who was looking forward to her sophomore year at Cypress Bay High School. “It’s quite scary and quite upsetting,” she said in a telephone interview. “I was expecting to go back and see them again. It’s quite scary to think it might not happen.”
Alison McKnight feels powerless. “I just don’t know where I stand,” she said. “If it’s not going to happen then it’s not going to happen. I just want my family back together.”