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Ronnie Thomas

Amy and Ray Bell, right, with sons Spencer, left, and Jackson. Ray Bell immigrated to the United States to take a teaching job at Calhoun Community College.
Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
Amy and Ray Bell, right, with sons Spencer, left, and Jackson. Ray Bell immigrated to the United States to take a teaching job at Calhoun Community College.

Immigration blues
Couple overcomes hurdles on both sides of the Atlantic

Some find it easy stepping across the Rio Grande River at the Texas-Mexico border and disappearing into the American landscape.

Ray Bell of Hartselle, a Brit raised in Carlisle, England, discovered hopping the big pond to the U.S. legally is entirely different.

And his wife, the former Amy Howell, who grew up in Hartselle, had problems at customs in London when she tried to join her husband "over there."

This is their story. It is one of love and relocation blues.

He first came to Decatur in 1992 to teach at Calhoun Community College on a Fulbright Scholarship, trading places with English instructor Bill Provin. During Christmas at The Brick that year, Randy Cross, also an English instructor at Calhoun, introduced Ray to his future wife.

"A couple of weeks later, I got a call from this guy with an English accent," Amy said. "We began dating and married July 24, 1993. Two weeks before our wedding, I found out that we were moving to England permanently, although a position had opened up for Ray at Calhoun. But Fulbright Scholars are required to return to their home country for two years after a one-year exchange."

The Bells had U.S. Rep. Bud Cramer, D-Huntsville, contact the Immigration and Naturalization Service about having the rule waived. The INS would not budge.

"Ray had to leave the states by Sept. 2, 1993, or be arrested," Amy said. "He returned to his job as a professor in Sheffield, England. I was left to tie up loose ends, and I flew over a month later on a tourist visa. I had never traveled abroad, but I expected a great experience and thought we'd only be living there for a temporary time."

Her encounter with a woman at customs at London's Gatwick Airport was a spoiler.

"She asked me a series of questions, and she was so rude. I told her I was there to meet my husband," Amy said. "I told her that I would apply for a resident status visa. She thought I was entering illegally and would vanish, and that our marriage was one of convenience. She took all of my money and put me in a holding area with a male guard. She told me I was being sent back to America."

The woman disappeared after Amy asked her to please notify her husband, waiting in the airport, that she was there.

"She returned after about 45 minutes, and I was distraught and crying," Amy said. "She told me to stop falling apart. She said, 'We're going to let you in, but you must return to America within six weeks.' A few weeks later, I got an official stamp on my passport noting that I could live and work in England indefinitely."

Their temporary stay turned into more than seven years. They lived in Sheffield four years before he found a job at William Wilberforce (cq) College in East Yorkshire, in the town of Hull.

"We lived in Beverly, a lovely market town 20 minutes from Ray's work. Our son Jackson was born there Oct. 10, 1999," Amy said. "But Ray and I were desperate to return to the states because of the high cost of living in England. He flew to Phenix City during a vacation break for a job interview at Chattahoochie State. He didn't get it, and we were shattered."

Later, a job at Calhoun opened and Ray returned for an interview and a five-day visit in May 2000, staying with his mother-in-law, Mitch Coon, in Hartselle. Three months later, back home in England, Kim Gaines, Calhoun's human resources manager, called and offered him the job.

"It was on the Friday before the fall semester started Monday," he said. "She asked if I could be at Calhoun by 8 a.m. Monday. I told her I didn't think so, but that I would phone and let her know how soon I could be there."

A couple of weeks into the semester, Ray spoke with then President Richard Carpenter and Teresa Hamilton, dean of instruction.

"They were kind and helpful. I told them I wanted to be there tomorrow. As it worked out, because of a delay getting my green card at the American Embassy in London, I sat out the whole semester while Randy and William "Bubba" Godsey covered my classes."

It wasn't until November 2000 that the embassy contacted him to come for an 8 a.m. interview. It was a six-hour drive to London, requiring an overnight stay and more expense.

"Even though I had confirmation of my employment at Calhoun, officials wanted to know how I was going to support myself in America. Then they wanted me to show evidence that I was a legal resident of the United States," he said. "I was in a Catch 22 situation. It soon became evident that they were more interested in knowing I had a mother-in-law who would support me and her tax records than anything else. I had an abbreviated form of her records going back five years. They wanted them in total. I phoned Mitch and she sent them in a box overnight. The cost was about $50."

The embassy phoned him Dec. 10 for another 8 a.m. interview. The clock was ticking. If he didn't get to Calhoun by the start of spring semester in January 2001, he would not have a job. But in a matter of minutes, he knew he was coming to America.

"I don't think they even opened that box," he said. "It's just the bureaucratic red tape you have to jump through."

Meanwhile, his wife was in Hartselle going slightly crazy.

"I was at Mother's with our 1-year-old. We had already sold our house in England," Amy said. "We were in the process of buying a house here, contingent upon Ray getting his green card. Our last hope was Calhoun. I remember praying, asking the Lord that this would be the last time Ray would apply for a job in America. And if he had lost the Calhoun job, we wouldn't have had a job or house on either side of the Atlantic."

Life on this side of the big pond couldn't be better for the Bells. They had another child and in December, Ray completed requirements for his Ph.D. at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro.

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Ronnie Thomas Ronnie Thomas
DAILY Staff Writer

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