HOME Office officials were last night branded “heartless” for attempting to deport a sick 91-year-old widow from Britain.
In a case that highlights deep flaws in our immigration system, Myrtle Cothill faces being split up from her family and kicked out of the UK.
Her heartbreaking plight comes after her family made a honest mistake in her application for residency.
Mrs Cothill’s devastated daughter now fears she will die alone in her native South Africa because Government pen-pushers have failed to show leniency and common-sense.
The treatment of the frail grandmother comes as thousands of asylum seekers remain in the UK at taxpayers expense while they wait for a decision on their futures and many illegal immigrants are working in the black economy.
The injustice has prompted former Shadow Home Secretary and Daily Express columnist Ann Widdecombe to rally to her cause.
Last night she demanded Home Secretary Theresa May seize control of the situation and allow seriously ill Mrs Cothill to stay here on compassionate grounds.
Ms Widdecombe said: “This old lady has nobody to go back to in South Africa and needs someone to look after her. The Home Office is standing by the letter of the law, rather than its spirit.
“She is now being hounded and threatened with deportation. She is living in a state of fear and it’s simply heartless and cruel.
“Terrorists stay here because they claim a right to a family life. On every possible ground this lady should stay but she faces removal because there’s simply a culture of easy targets.”
Mrs Cothill was brought here by her British family last year on a six-month visitor visa. But her health rapidly deteriorated so they decided to apply for her to stay permanently.
Immigration rules make it clear visas cannot be swapped while the person is in the country they are visiting. The Home Office said if she wanted to remain she should have applied while she was in her native Natal in South Africa.
They now want to put her on a plane and flown 8,000 miles so she can tick the boxes required for residency. But her health is so bad doubts remain whether she would survive the 12-hour flight.
Mr Cothill’s desperate situation has shone a fresh light on a broken system that allows terrorists and rapists to stay in the UK because of their human rights but discriminates against others.
Last night her tearful daughter pleaded for clemency and asked Ms May to allow her mother to see out her final years in the UK.
Mary Wills said: “My mother is not going round beheading or shooting people she just wants to be here surrounded by people that love her.
“We live in constant fear of a knock at the door. She is not a terrorist or asylum seeker, she is a frail woman who should be able to live in peace.
“This situation is having a big effect on us all, we just can’t relax. Why can’t the Home Secretary use her discretion? Would she do the same if it was her mother?”
Mrs Cothill, who received a Papal honour from Pope Benedict for 60 years of selfless service to Catholicism, arrived in Britain in February 2014.
She is partially deaf, has lung problems and virtually no sight in one eye because of macular degeneration, so her family are desperate to care for her.
The devout Catholic lives in Poole, Dorset, with her daughter and her husband David, who has Parkinson’s Disease. She receives a widow’s pension of around £300 a month.
But because she failed to apply in the right way the Home Office regards Mrs Cothill as an overstayer, just like tens of thousands who arrive here illegally and then simply vanish.
Retired carer Mrs Wills, 66, who has lived here since 1997, incorrectly thought her mother could apply for leave to remain once she was settled. In fact, applications need to be made prior to arrival.
The muddled situation is a legacy of labour’s decision to open the floodgates 18 years ago, a move that allowed hundreds of thousands of people to stay here no-questions-asked.
It caused such a stampede the rules were eventually changed, a move that stops tourists and students on short visas staying here permanently.
Experts estimate there could be as many as 1.1m illegal immigrants in the UK fuelling a black economy worth £80billion-a-year.
Yet Mrs Cothill and her family now face heartbreak after they were accused of trying to circumvent immigration laws.
She was mercilessly grilled in a courtroom by a tribunal which ruled she had to leave. She also lost an appeal.
The Home Office has now started calling and writing to the nonagenarian at home demanding to know when she will go.
Critics of the decision to kick her out say it is at odds with Britain’s centuries old reputation for fair play.
Incredibly, radical hate cleric Abu Qatada was granted asylum in 1994 before he was recognised as a national security threat. He stubbornly refused to leave for nearly 20 years.
The battle to deport him cost taxpayers £1.7million. More than a third of the cost covered legal aid against attempts to deport him to Jordan. He was finally removed in 2013 after an eight year battle.
Members of the congregation at St. Joseph’s Church in Poole have lobbied MP Robert Syms to help provide Mrs Cothill with a stay of execution.
He said: “It’s a sad story but the family haven’t followed the proper immigration procedures and they might have succeeded had they done so.
“I have written to the Home Office asking them to exercise some compassion in this case.”
The Home Office said: “All applications are considered on their individual merits, including any exceptional or compassionate circumstances, and in line with the immigration rules.”
By Giles Sheldrick