A few years ago Candy, an American dancer, met another performer while working in the UK, who she would later go on to marry.
On a student visa, she completed a course at the University of Huddersfield. The couple had their first child shortly before she graduated.
Now she may have just a few months left with her family. Her husband works in a kitchen and earns just £600 a year below the £18,600 income a British citizen needs to be able to earn to sponsor a spouse.
Marcus, a British citizen married to a Filipino man, is in a similar predicament. He is recovering from a long term illness that restricted his ability to work for over five years, but was never classified disabled on the grounds that he could walk over 100m without resting. He earns below the income threshold and is saving up to be in a position where his husband (an LGBT man currently having to work in a deeply hostile country in the Middle East) can come to the UK.
It has now been five years since the Government banned nearly half of all British citizens from family life at home with a foreign partner. The minimum income requirement uses your wealth to decide whether you have the right to fall in love and have a normal family life.
Under the guise of reducing migration, the Home Office significantly rolled back British citizens’ rights. A recent Supreme Court judgment even found the policy unlawfully fails to take children’s’ needs into account. But the policy remains in force.
It has given rise to “Skype families”, like that of David Lordkipanidze, who fled political harassment in Georgia in 2000. After a ten-year battle he was granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK, but since has not earned enough for his family to be permitted to join him. He has had to watch his son grow up over Skype. “It’s like the Government has sentenced me to die alone without family in a different country”, he says. And some of those affected have partners living in places where stable internet is difficult to come by, so they don’t even have the benefit of Skype much of the time.
4 out of 10 earn below the £18.6k threshold – but those earning above the threshold are not immune either. The threshold rises with each child in a family, and those on contract work or similar will have trouble proving the stability of their income, even when their earnings are significantly higher.
Migrant Voice, who work to increase migrant representation in the media and change the tone of public debate on migration, have spoken to a huge range of people affected. They include lifelong British workers, refugees fleeing war, or non-EU professionals – all denied the simple birth-right of time with parents, partners or children. At least 15,000 children have been affected by these rules since 2012. The 2012 family migration rules also changed for adult dependent relatives. Previously, elderly people could come to live with relatives in the UK that they were dependent on for financial or emotional support. This category has been restricted to severely incapacitated people and in essence closed altogether.
In both these cases the new rules save no money at all: neither category were able to access public funds beyond NI contribution entitlements prior to 2012.
Neither are these policies popular. In March the case of Irene Clennell made headlines: a Durham woman with a British husband dating back decades and British children and grandchildren. “During my removal from Britain I was treated like a terrorist”, she said. “I was restrained by the arms, my every word written down, and there were guards on the door when I went to the toilet.” Her crime? To visit Singapore to care for an ailing relative – to find on her return that she would no longer be permitted to stay. Public polling showed 66% of respondents opposing Irene’s deportation.
Polling also shows that people generally supported Theresa May’s net migration cap. But on the real, often hidden measures taken to achieve the unachievable, many are opposed. The gap is there due to a failure on part of government to be honest about migration policy – because few relish the idea of families being torn apart.
While individuals with refugee status are not subject to the income threshold requirement they face other barriers. Imagine, for instance, an LGBT couple fleeing persecution in a country where same-sex marriage is not recognised. Or imagine a refugee who has fled a war zone and left most of their possessions behind. Neither would have the often onerous levels of “proof” of a relationship the Home Office requires, which routinely goes beyond just marriage certificates or wedding pictures, into demands for years’ worth of email exchanges or phone records.
The 2012 family migration rules are not the only part of UK migration policy that routinely breaks up family life. There is a pre-existing architecture of legislation that undermines and tramples on the right to a family life. But the 2012 rules are among the most far-reaching and senseless parts of the system.
European nationals are currently able to bring family members to Britain without being subject to the threshold; a right that the Government currently aim to scrap after Brexit. Soile Pietikäinen, a Finnish woman who has lived in Britain for 17 years says the whole process makes her feel “intensely unwanted.” Real parity after Brexit would involve raising British people’s rights to the level Europeans enjoy – but the government are set on a race to the bottom.
It doesn’t have to be this way. During the general election, immigration did not take centre-stage as an issue. The last few years, from the widely-circulated images of refugee child Aylan Kurdi lying on a Turkish beach to the Irene Clennell case, have been marked by spontaneous surges in support for the humans behind the “migrant” label. With Brexit approaching and a new Immigration Bill due to be tabled, the level of public understanding of policy can – and must – be raised over the next year.
The Government says it is in the mood to compromise. People across the political spectrum will agree that breaking families up provides no benefit to Britain, and that we do not have to choose between common sense and compassion. This is one of a number of areas where the senselessness of arbitrary migration caps can be exposed and challenged, and eventually replaced with a policy that rather than holding back or breaking up families, helps people to thrive and flourish.