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.
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.