CARROLLWOOD — Lynda Ayre, a hardworking Englishwoman with a penchant for letter writing, estimates she has spent almost $160,000 to live here, in the land of the free.
And she still might not get to stay.
Ayre, 62, is in the midst of an international dispute of sorts. Although it's lacking in intrigue, it's high on headaches. Her visa, which allows her to live and work in the United States, has been denied.
Ayre and her husband, Brian, have been visiting America for 20 years. For most of that time, they were tourists who stayed in six-month stints. But as they began looking toward retirement, they thought about making it home.
"We decided it was a wonderful country. You sort of speak English — not the Queen's English, but you can understand it. And the food's edible," she says in her spitfire Brit's way. "It's like living in paradise. The sun shines every day."
In 2001, they opened a bank account.
In 2003, they bought a house in Key Vista in Holiday.
When they came back in 2004, they ended up extending their stay while Brian, a civil engineer, looked for a job. But even though he got offers, it was virtually impossible to find an employer willing to take on all the red tape of sponsoring a foreign worker.
So they went home and decided their best bet was to buy a business.
Ayre is now the owner of Salon Silk, a hair salon on Dale Mabry Highway she bought for $150,000. She has no background in hairstyling but liked the idea of interacting with customers.
"I just thought it would be a sociable kind of business to buy," she said. "And I'm a complete nutcase about my hair. It's a different color every week."
She frequently puts in 12-hour days, doing payroll, running laundry, staffing the front desk and cleaning. She's always looking to hire new stylists.
"I love it," she said. "But you know, it's hard work and I'm 62 years old. I'm not afraid of hard work."
And that, perhaps, is her biggest frustration with her visa problem.
"I don't get anything from the government," she said, "and I don't expect it."
She applied for and received an investment visa when she bought the salon in 2006. Combined with the cost of setting up the salon corporation, it all cost $5,000. In December, it was time to renew.
But the weeks ticked by, and her attorney in Orlando didn't return the paperwork to her until one day before the due date. It turned out he had a sick relative and had to leave the country.
Ayre mailed the paperwork — late — to a U.S. Citizen and Immigration Service office in California, along with $1,620 in application and processing fees — and was denied.
She regrouped and within a few weeks mailed an appeal called a motion for reconsideration, along with another $585 in fees.
"They said the excuse we used or the reason we gave wasn't extreme enough," she said.
The money, by the way, was not refunded.
And in between the two denials, she started writing letters.
Two to President Barack Obama.
Two to Vice President Joe Biden.
One to Hillary Clinton.
One to former President Bill Clinton.
One to former Vice President Al Gore. (He replied that he was no longer in government and encouraged her to contact a local elected official.)
She also wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett. And she called the White House.
That's on top of contacting media heavyweights like Bill O'Reilly, Diane Sawyer and Anderson Cooper.
She has not gotten very far.
U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis' office made an inquiry on her behalf to the immigration service. His spokesman said they were still awaiting an answer.
State Rep. Peter Nehr, whose mother is a friend of Ayre's, wrote a letter to help plead her case to the immigration service. He called her an asset to the community whose business provides jobs for Floridians.
"She is law-abiding and expects nothing for free," Nehr wrote.
Federal privacy laws prevent officials from talking about an individual case. But Ana Santiago, spokeswoman for the immigration service in Miami, said visas are frequently denied when the deadline isn't met. Appeals come to down each case's merits.
"They're individually considered," Santiago said. "There's not a blanket position made on certain types of cases."
The money Ayre has paid out is just a cost she will have to bear.
"We have to process that application whether that application is approved or denied," Santiago said. "Processing that application has a cost."
For now, Ayre keeps trying to bring attention to her case, hoping her American dream isn't over.
"I've gone from being legal to being illegal, and that breaks my heart," she said. "I could have done that 20 years ago. I could have walked in with a suitcase and just disappeared."
Molly Moorhead can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6245.