UK Immigration Clampdown Tears Families Apart

I thought I knew about immigration policy. I read about it, I wrote about it. I even studied it. I went to lectures, where people with multiple degrees presented complex economic models and talked at length about border security, and visas, and ‘managing migration’.

But in late January, for the first time, I felt it.

I felt it as I boarded a plane and crossed an ocean, and left my husband some 3,000 miles behind, with no precise knowledge of when I would see him again. That day, I realized I still had a lot to learn about immigration policy.

Sometimes when attempting to study migration academically or ‘scientifically’, we can lose sight of the fact that migration is fundamentally a human experience, rich in personal meaning for the individuals who undertake it. In this way, migration reads much differently in person than it does on paper. In practice, migration means excitement and new beginnings. It means hoping for more, for better, or even just for something different. Migrations are built on dreams.

Unfortunately, dreams can be a shaky foundation. It’s when you wake from those dreams that you find the other side of migration – the rootlessness, the uncertainty; you find rupture and loss. You discover that no matter which end you look at it from, migration always means saying goodbye to someone. Sometimes, those goodbyes are forced, the result of policy rather than choice.

Our Story

In 2011, I left my small town in the U.S. for the United Kingdom after receiving a Fulbright scholarship to complete an MA in Migration Studies at the University of Sussex. When I arrived, my interest in migration was purely academic. My focus was set squarely on obtaining my degree, and I never dreamt I’d find a husband along the way. But love surprises you sometimes. I met my husband while studying, and we were fast friends. The months passed, and as our relationship developed, our thoughts turned to the future. By that time, my interest in migration had already ceased to be purely academic and become deeply personal as well. I wanted nothing more than to stay in the UK and begin our life together.

Unfortunately, it was not to be – or at least not how we’d imagined. Once married, we were crushed to learn that the family immigration rules I had hoped to remain under had been severely revised in July 2012. Specifically, our problems were:

  • The new rules stipulated an income of £18,600 to sponsor spouses from outside the European Union. More problematically, that income level was required for at least six months prior to any application. Unfortunately, we had just five months between the end of our MA and the date that my student visa expired.
  • The new rules also stipulated that third parties could no longer co-sponsor immigrants. This meant that my husband’s family would not be able to help sponsor me if he was not able to find work immediately at the stipulated income level.

Concerned we might not meet the requirements, we re-evaluated our plans. We spent weeks poring over UKBA documents and migration forums, emailing solicitors, and considering the best course of action. We also learned that these rules do not apply to EU nationals. If my husband were French or Polish, he would have had no problem sponsoring me to stay with him in London.

With our future increasingly uncertain, we eventually decided to apply to settle in the U.S., where the income threshold for family migration hovers just above minimum wage and third-party sponsors are permitted. Even so, we never really gave up on our hopes of staying in the UK. Instead, we began to look for work. My husband found employment quickly, but his salary fell just short of the stated threshold. We hoped I could make up the shortfall, but this was also not straightforward. In April 2012 the government eliminated its post-study work visa, meaning that students graduating from a UK university could no longer stay on to work unless they secured sponsorship from an employer. Without prior permission to work, very few organisations and companies would even accept my application.

Eventually, though, I found work in the research department of a London-based charity. I was earning at a rate that exceeded the income threshold, but there was a catch. My employer wanted me to stay on long-term, but didn’t hold a Tier 2 license to sponsor me. At that time, my husband and I were together earning at a rate that more than doubled the stated threshold, but because we had not been working for six months, it didn’t count. Instead, one solicitor told us we would need £25,000 in savings to make a successful application. Another informed us that the new immigration rules were so complex, he found it impossible to give us predictable advice.

Every avenue exhausted, we finally realized I wouldn’t be able to stay. I couldn’t stay because we didn’t have the money, but we couldn’t make the money because I couldn’t stay.

What is the justification for these rules?

UKBA officials have publicly stated that these rules are meant to facilitate ‘integration’, meaning that migrants must learn English and ‘pay their way’. I find this justification puzzling. I already speak English, and I always have. All we wanted was the chance to ‘pay our way’, but the instability these rules introduced in our lives made that impossible. In light of this, the government’s insistence that this threshold would help me learn English and ‘integrate’ is disingenuous and insulting. These rules are not facilitating integration; in my case, they halted it entirely.

Regarding ‘integration’, I’d also like to compare the conditions under which I arrived in the UK with those under which I left. Before coming to the UK, I knew almost no one. I knew relatively little about the country, having visited only once. Nevertheless, when I applied under the Fulbright programme, my visa fee was waived, and my student visa application was expedited. The whole process was free, and it took just a few weeks. I have a hard time reconciling this with the way in which family migrants are now being treated. I cannot understand why a country that welcomed me so warmly was so very eager to see me leave, despite my husband’s right to establish a family life in his country.

The personal is political

Still, we are lucky. For us, these rules resulted in only a short separation. We had no problems securing a green card for my husband, and we are looking forward to starting our life in the U.S. We are fortunate in so many ways and fully aware that it could be so much worse. Still, these rules introduced uncertainty and instability into our lives at a point when we needed it most. They shattered our plans and truncated our lives, ensuring the very financial precarity they were ostensibly meant to prevent. They have also forced my husband into an effective exile from the country in which he has spent his entire life. For these reasons, my opposition to these rules is very personal.

This essay is more than just a personal narrative, though. It is a political indictment. I have shared my story because this is a problem that will affect an estimated 15,000 couples every year. Many of them do not have the option of moving to another country. Their stories are being chronicled online at the blog BritCits. These stories demonstrate that these rules are crafted in such a way that even if you speak English, even if you ‘integrate’, and even if you find a good job, you might still find it impossible to stay with your loved one in the UK.

That is not an accident. It is intentional, and it is wrong.

I am shocked by the brazen hypocrisy of a political party that extols families as the ‘bedrock of a strong and stable society’ while actively legislating against thousands of families. The UK government has made it clear that they believe they can measure the value of a foreign spouse, child, or adult dependent family member by the figures in a bank account. Now it is up to British citizens and the immigrants they love to show them how wrong they are. Our relationships are worth so much more than that.

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10 comments

  1. A great piece. Can we include your story in the BritCits pack? – Steve Green / britcits.com / sjplep [at] gmail [dot] com

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  2. Every British person has the possibility to move to another European country and take his third-country nationality spouse with him. When they stayed there and worked for at least a a period of 3 months using their EU rights of free movement of workers they can return BOTH to the UK. And the spouse would not have to fulfill any requirement. Especially in cases like yours were you just finished your education it is as difficult as excepting that job more then 4 hours away from your current address which obliges you to move there. And it is also increasing your possibilities to find a job (“So you worked for a year in (add country)? How interesting”)

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    1. Calynn Dowler · · Reply

      True, and we considered this, but ultimately we decided we needed to be somewhere where we could settle long-term in and start our careers and life together. Personally I have spent the past four years in a four different countries so I was looking forward to some stability! We ended up deciding on the U.S., but this could be an option for some. For others, however, there are many reasons why moving to activate one’s EEA treaty rights might not be practical or possible. It can also get complicated, as the following story shows: http://familyimmigrationalliance.wordpress.com/2011/12/

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  3. “I am shocked by the brazen hypocrisy of a political party that extols families as the ‘bedrock of a strong and stable society’ while actively legislating against thousands of families.
    We also learned that these rules do not apply to EU nationals. If my husband were French or Polish, he would have had no problem sponsoring me to stay with him in London.”

    So the real hypocrisy of the UK Government is that it is OK to enter UK with your spouse, children, parents and your spouse’s children and parents, none of whom have to speak English or having savings or even a job but only if you are an EU Citizen and not a UK Citizen.

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    1. Calynn Dowler · · Reply

      Certainly, though I think the UK government would prevent EU citizens as well if they could find a way around their EEA treaty obligations. Right now they are hurting the people they still can – their own citizens. I don’t necessarily think the problem is that EU citizens can come to the UK, because freedom of movement is a tremendous achievement for the EU, and the human rights legislation that allows them to bring their families is very important. As you note, right now, the problem is that the UK is preventing those rights from being extended to its own citizens, which is unacceptable.

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  4. Brilliantly written Calynn. I wish you and your husband a happy life in the US and hope in the future you have the option to return to the UK. Best wishes.

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    1. Calynn Dowler · · Reply

      Thank you Andy!

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  5. I am one of the many affected by these callous rules. My wife is Russian, she achieved a pass rate in excess of the language requirement but her visa was refused because she did not take the test at an approved centre. To put our story into perspective, after we married in Russia I was made redundant on my return to UK. We thought it only fair that I found a new job before applying by which time the English requirement had been introduced, our immigration specialist failed to advise us correctly until 1 hour before my wife’s interview. They were happy to take our thousand pounds and offered no recompense for their disastrous advice. The only approved centre for the English test in Kaliningrad only offers IELTS and UKBA decided that a level B1 is the minimum requirement in this test. A double standard in my mind. My wife achieved an overall grade 4 in April 2011 but by the time we collected the huge pile of documentary evidence they changed the rules on this aswell. From an overall grade 4 being sufficient to a minimum of grade 4 in all sections. My wife only achieved grade 3 in speaking. My argument is that grade 3 speaking is equivalent to level A2 which, at the time, exceeded the required level, ie A1 . UKBA would not accept that and so we started again, then came the minimum income requirement and our lives fell apart. We had spent in excess of £5000 on language lessons, my visits to her in Russia, my supporting 2 homes, visa application fees etc etc etc. We decided enough was enough I began my search for work in Europe and was fortunate to find work in my area of expertise in Germany in April 2013. We moved to Germany dragging along a huge debt on April 22nd. Fortunately I had secured a buyer for my house in the Uk but it is a long process from agreement to exchange of contracts made even longer by the need to correspond by email, print documents, sign, scan and return. A British citizen by birth forced into exile purely because I chose to fall in love and marry a fantastic woman who is, unfortunately , non european. I will also miss those pivotal moments in my grand daughters life as a result of the UK govt’s inflexibility regarding 1 point on an English test and £500 on the income requirement.

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  6. Calynn Dowler · · Reply

    Hi Lionel, thanks for your comment. Your story is a prime example of the ill-conceived, harsh nature of these rules and the enormous strain they place upon couples. I’m so sorry to hear of the difficulties you’ve had, but I’m glad that you have found an alternative in relocating to Germany. As you say, it seems ridiculous that you should have had to, but I nonetheless wish you both the best with the move!

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  7. Great article. Am glad I managed to sort out my UK immigration status some years earlier before it got much more harder and arbitrary.

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