UK Border, Stansted airport. Image: Flickr/ Andre
Immigration has been a hot topic of late, featuring in election campaigning and ranking third (after the NHS and the UK economy) in a list of the most important election issues according to a BBC poll. It is a problem that we always think of immigration in a one-sided way. The ‘us’ is an uncomplicated homogenous ‘British’ population. And the ‘them’ is the immigrants and potential immigrants that are coming to ‘steal our benefits’ / ‘use our NHS’ / ‘take our jobs’ / ‘contribute diversity and multiculturalism’ (delete as appropriate). On the other hand, we could think about emigrants. And ex-pats (since, white people aren’t ‘immigrants’ no matter where they go). Or transnational families, or mixed citizen-immigrant families – the latter is what I focus on here.
For example, maybe you’ve heard that Britain is the biggest exporter of people in the EU. Or that Britain isn’t even in the top ten of destination countries for Romanian migrants. You’re possibly also aware that the cost of immigrants to the NHS is vastly lower than the costs UK citizens levy on European national healthcare systems (who are the ‘health tourists’ now?). And I’m interested in pursuing this question of benefits. I believe that restricting access to benefits for migrants will have a detrimental effect on people in the UK. My position is based on an existing effort to prevent immigrants from accessing benefits and the enormous amount of harm that has done to immigrants and citizens alike. I’m talking about the spousal visa minimum income requirement.
In short, if you want to immigrate a spouse to the UK you have to earn at least £18,600. This increases if you have children. The law is meant to ensure that foreign spouses will not come to rely on benefits – become a burden to the state – and also to act as an incentive against transnational ‘sham’ marriages. It does this by simply preventing non-wealthy people from moving to the UK to live as a family, regardless of how long they’ve been married and, irrationally, making it even more difficult if they have children.
The spousal visa minimum income requirement puts a price tag on the value of living as a family. It separates families, including children from their parents. It establishes that the feelings of people who earn less are not worth respecting – if you don’t earn enough money you don’t deserve to be with the person you love or even your children. You might harm national interests! Furthermore, setting the level at £18,600 potentially affects almost half of the British population – according to the All Parliamentary Group on migration in 2013 47% of the population would not qualify to immigrate a foreign spouse.
But perhaps more important than surface-level objections, the law has implications of gender-based discrimination. Women are overrepresented in low-paying jobs and earn on average 19.1% less than their male counterparts in the same job, meaning they are unfairly disadvantaged if they have a foreign spouse.
Ethnic minorities are twice as likely to live in a low-income household than white families. A low income family is measured at earning less than 60% of the median income. This is currently about £10,600 – a little more than half the spousal visa income requirement.
Finally, the spousal visa income requirement forces the choice for a family: the partner who is the British citizen must be the breadwinner, at least for a period of time. It precludes the UK citizen parent making the choice to stay at home and take care of children should he or she want to do that.
It is worth asking whether the spousal visa income requirement has successfully fulfilled its objective of preventing a burden on the state while limiting transnational ‘sham’ or arranged marriages. It has certainly limited access to spousal visas. However, there is no evidence that says that access has targeted the intended population (while there are critical analyses that illustrate why targeting the intended population is problematic). There is no evidence to show that the income requirement works more effectively than the requirement of a minimum age.
Even without the spousal visa requirement, the cost of gaining permanent residence in the UK is currently £1168.20 with a second £1168.20 due after 30 months in the country. To then receive permanent settlement a foreign spouse must pay an additional £1579.18 at the five year mark– making a total of £3915.28. If one then wants to become a British citizen the fee is an additional £1096.70 (which includes biometric fees, a ceremony and a passport). This isn’t cheap. It’s already enacting a discriminatory wealth-based measure. Moreover, no one gets a visa without paying for it, although people from the wealthiest countries in the world who are most likely to afford the cost do get a visa-waiver.