Immigrant stories: The minister's cleaner

Mark Harper: Brought back into government as Isabella Acevedo is put in a detention centre
Mark Harper: Brought back into government as Isabella Acevedo is put in a detention centre
Ian Dunt By

On Saturday, February 8th, immigration minister Mark Harper resigned from the government. He'd been employing a cleaner but was unable to provide papers showing she had the right to work. He sat down in front of TV cameras, looking sombre and respectable, and announced that he was stepping down.

The prime minister accepted the resignation with regret and celebrated the minister for holding himself to a high ethical standard. He told him that he hoped he could return sooner rather than later. Even his Labour shadow, David Hanson, said he had "shown himself to be a decent man".

On that same morning, his cleaner faced an altogether harsher reception. Immigration officers conducted a dawn raid at her flat, arriving at 5:30 am and breaking their way in. Fortunately for her, Isabelle Acevedo wasn't in. She'd been staying with a friend because she didn't have enough money for the rent.

The immigration officers took what they wanted from the house and padlocked it. That way she would have to attend an appointment to get access to her belongings, at which point they could detain her. All of this happened before Harper had announced his resignation. There is a suspicion the Home Office wanted her under lock and key before the story went public.

"During Saturday, the phone rang all day," she tells me over the phone from Yarl's Wood detention centre, where she is currently being held. "They started calling at half six. They said: 'We only want to talk to you. We have your passport'. They called at twelve, at two. They called all day.

"I was so nervous. I was crying. I just wanted to speak to my lawyer but the office was closed on a Saturday. They called again and I gave them to my friend who speaks very good English."

Acevedo's English is poor, although not as poor as my Spanish, which is particularly brutal and useless. We struggle through the conversation in a mixture of both. It takes a long time.

"I asked my friend to find out what they want," she says. "At this point I'm crazy. I'm so nervous. I'm in shock. Immigration tell my friend that I worked for a very important person and that person needs me to leave the country."

Acevedo arrived in the UK in 2000 from Colombia, with her daughter. She was looking for a better life. "It's a very violent country Colombia, very military," she says. "There's nothing to do."

She struggled with the language and the weather but she started to make a life here as a cleaner. "It was very, very hard but I just thought: OK, everything will come good," she says. "It's good for my future, for everything."

She started working for the Harpers in 2007. When he resigned Harper told the prime minister he had asked for her papers – a photocopy of her passport and a letter from the Home Office saying she could work - as soon as she started cleaning at his flat, but that he had now lost them. Acevedo says her interview was with Mrs Harper and that she was not asked for papers.

"At the beginning I just saw Mrs Harper," she says. "She showed me the flat, told me what I needed to do. She was very polite. But she did not ask for anything. After one or two years – then she questioned me and asked for the papers."

This part of the story tallies with Harper's account. He said he'd considered the issue again when he was appointed minister in the Cabinet Office in May 2010 and immigration minister in 2012.

"I gave Mrs Harper the papers and nothing happened," Acevedo says. "I continued for another two, three – I don't know how many years. But in February, Mrs Harper questioned me about my papers again."

For what it's worth, Acevedo remembers Mark Harper, who she only met a handful of times, as polite and courteous. But this was to be the end of his politeness.

"I brought the papers for her on a Wednesday or Thursday. On Saturday morning, immigration go to my house. It's very hard to talk about it."

Then the phone calls started.

"My friend asked me: 'You work for an important person?'" Acevedo recalls. "I said I worked for lots of people, professional people. But everyone is important in that block of flats. I didn't understand what they meant. At that moment, I understood nothing. Then on Sunday, in the news, my name is everywhere. Everywhere. In every country."

Then she breaks down. She cries for a long time and tries to say something. All I can hear is: "Just for cleaning a house." I say 'sorry' several times. I'm not sure why. I feel awkward.

I'm not in front of her, or else I think I probably would have given her a hug. After a while I stop saying sorry and I sit at my desk and listen to a woman I have never met cry. I feel guilty, in a vague and imprecise way.

Suddenly there is another voice in the background.

"I have to go," Acevedo says quickly. "An officer is here." Then the line goes dead.

A few hours pass and I still can't get hold of her. It could be nothing. Or it could be an early deportation. I call her friends, but they can't get hold of her either. I ask one of them, Trenton Oldfield, to tell the story from where she left off.

"She actually found out about it on a bus," he recalls. "She managed to get a bag of her stuff and took a bus and then suddenly she heard people speaking about her. She was so distracted someone stole the bag. So she had nothing.

"She ended up meeting with her daughter and bursting into tears. Eventually they started laughing, saying 'look what's happened, how have our lives ended up like this?'"

The calls from the Home Office became threatening and abusive. One caller told her: "You're messing with the wrong people." As many people do when faced with the grim reality of a hostile Home Office campaign, she went underground, cancelled her phone and tried to get her papers in order so she could make a proper case for her right to remain.

They found her last Saturday, at her daughter's wedding.

"We were at the back talking to Isabella, just catching up," Oldfield says. "We told her she looked amazing. Then this stroppy, matron-type woman came up and asked: 'Where's the bride's mother?' I thought it was weird but she went with her and suddenly she was grabbed by about 15 immigration officers.

"The bride and groom were separated too. It happened really quickly. There were seven or eight of them with Isabella and seven or eight separating the groom and bride.

"They really grabbed her. She's got marks on her arms. They handcuffed her. She said that in the van one of them leaned over and said: 'We told you we would get you. I was there the last time. I raided your house. We've got you now. You've nowhere to run'."

The officers didn't appear to know any of the laws they were operating under. Some did not wear badge numbers. They did not explain where they were taking her – or her brother, who had also been detained. They tried to stop the wedding, telling her daughter that she didn't have the proper paperwork to go ahead. The registrar checked and found everything was in order. The wedding went ahead, but only after the mother of the bride had been taken away.

"She'd never have expected immigration to come and snatch her at the wedding. She didn’t even think it was a possibility," Oldfield says.

"It was incomprehensible to her than an institution would behave like that. She said: 'I haven't done anything wrong. I'm a working person, I'm making a life, why would they do that to me and my family?'"

Harper's life and hers bear a constant symmetry. Last week, just before the wedding raid, he was promoted back into government as a minister in the Department of Work and Pensions. Oldfield says Acevedo knew that as she was taken away. "'Harper has been forgiven', she said, 'why can't I? The same rules aren't applied to me and my family as they are to Mark Harper'."

I still don't  know what happened to Acevedo as the phone was disconnected. There is a protest taking place outside Mark Harper's flat, where she worked, at 6:30 this afternoon. There is another protest at Heathrow Terminal 5 at 7pm tomorrow, ahead of her expected deportation. Lawyers are looking into a judicial review.

This is her immigrant story.


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