Barring a last-minute reprieve, the sun will set on Laura and Dean Franks’ American Dream at the end of this week.

The English couple, who ran a restaurant in Wells from 2000 until late last year, are at the end of a tourist visa that has allowed them back into the country to try to oversee the sale of their restaurant, a rental house and their home in Arundel.

None of the properties has sold, and they don’t know whether they will be allowed back into the U.S. even for a closing if they get a firm offer.

“After 10 years, there’s nowhere else we’d rather live, but it doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen,” Dean Franks said from the couple’s home Tuesday.

The two came to Maine to live and start Laura’s Kitchen in 2000, after vacationing in the state for years.

Dean Franks said the couple loved Maine — they got married here — and wanted to settle in and run a restaurant. Laura Franks had experience cooking in corporate cafeterias, while Dean Franks had been a financial planner.

The restaurant became established, if not wildly successful, as a breakfast and lunch spot. The couple said they earned enough to pay off the mortgage on the restaurant and the rental house next door, and were debt-free except for the mortgage on their house in Arundel.

They were in this country on an E-2 visa, which allows foreigners to run businesses in the U.S. as long as they generate income beyond what’s needed to support investors and their families, or provide a significant economic impact. That benchmark is subjective, and there are no formulas for determining whether a business meets the standard.

For nine years, the Frankses apparently met the requirement. Their visa was renewed twice, for two years each time, after the initial five-year period. In 2009, however, a federal office in California determined that Laura’s Kitchen was marginal and no longer met the criteria.

Dean Franks said the restaurant’s income had fallen off with the recession, but they were still earning enough to keep up with their bills and hire employees — anywhere from two to eight, depending on the season and the restaurant’s needs.

He said the State Department, which oversees the E-2 visa program, used the wrong figures in making its determination. Officials have acknowledged the error, he said, but won’t revisit their initial decision with the correct numbers.

Officials in the State Department’s press office did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday.

Franks said it has been a frustrating experience because the standards aren’t fixed.

“There’s no number that they’ll give us,” he said. “There’s no line in the sand. You don’t know what to aim for because they won’t tell you.”

Daniel Maranci, the couple’s lawyer at the Verrill Dana office in Boston, said citizenship isn’t a realistic option for the Frankses because the demand for U.S. citizenship is so high that it’s very difficult to get.

Unless an applicant has family members here, or is given political asylum, their only route to a green card — the first step in gaining legal status in the country — is through an annual lottery.

In any case, Maranci said, the applicant must be employed, and self-employment doesn’t count. Even if the couple were allowed to stay here, sold the restaurant and got jobs, Maranci said, it would take eight years before they could apply for green cards.

The E-2 visa program is not intended as a track to citizenship, according to the rules of the program.

Franks said that despite the ordeal, he thinks America is the greatest country in the world, and the couple would jump at the chance to stay.

“We came here to try to build a different life,” he said, and they have no desire to return to England. “We’re looking for a better quality of life and the U.S. is best for that.”

On Friday, he said, the couple will return to Nova Scotia, where a restaurant customer has allowed them to use a home. Dean Franks said he has no idea what their next move will be. Until their business and property sells, they will have no money to invest in another business.

He said they would likely look to settle in a country that has objective criteria for deciding whether immigrants may stay.

“Everyone knows it’s easy to stay illegally,” he said, “but I don’t want to do that.”

 

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: [email protected]