Monday, 6 August 2012

Britannia rules: New requirements for UK family immigration

Just before I hopped on a plane to start my life as as US resident proper, the UK Government announced changes to the procedures for family immigration to the UK. The changes broke my heart.
There was some coverage in the media about the changes at the time, and expat websites and blogs explained their concern over the changes because they have made family immigration to the UK so much more prohibitive. More so even than the US. I wrote to my MP, who wrote to Theresa May, who wrote back to me recently. Let me explain, let me compare to the process I experienced, and let me respond to Ms May's words.

In the current US system, a sponsor (US citizen sponsoring foreign relative) must earn 125% of the US poverty guidelines (currently $18,912 for a household of two). If the US citizen does not earn that much, they can use co-sponsors and assets to make up the income level. For example, if the US citizen has just graduated and hasn't set up a household yet, they can use a support network from their family to assist in bringing the foreign relative over. Us Transatlantic couples have great family support networks.

As I explained before, this is to ensure that the foreign family member does not become a public charge upon entering the US. I cannot claim any US government aid, because if I do, my husband will have to pay it back. It's pointless for me to even try.

In the UK the income threshold for the sponsor (the UK citizen sponsoring a foreign relative) is now £18,600, although if the UK citizen does not have an income they may use savings of at least £60,000.

In the words of Theresa May to me:
The purpose of the minimum income requirement for sponsorship is to ensure
that family migrants are supported at a reasonable level so that they do not
become a burden on the taxpayer and they can participate sufficiently in
everyday life to facilitate their integration into British society. British citizens and
those settled in the UK are free to enter into a genuine relationship with
whomever they choose, but if they Wish to establish their family life in the UK, it is
appropriate that they should do so on a basis that does not increase burdens on
the taxpayer and promotes integration…
This I agree with entirely in theory. However, it is possible to avoid a new immigrant becoming a burden on the taxpayer, by making it impossible for them to access benefits, or by making the sponsor financially responsible. I can't be a burden on the US state, because the US state would claim everything back from my husband, but at least we get to be together in the same country. The UK now has one of the highest income requirements for family immigration.

Moreover, as Theresa May then explains:
…We believe it is right that the person seeking to be joined by their migrant spouse
or partner should be the sponsor, and that they should be able to support their
partner independently. Therefore third party or joint sponsorship is not accepted.
Similarly, offers of support from third parties will not be counted towards meeting
the requirement. We want the sponsor, or the couple if both are already in the
UK, to demonstrate independent financial standing, with adequate resources
under their own control. 
No co-sponsors. The new policy expects the UK citizen to be the main breadwinner in the family. If the UK citizen is not the main source of income, or if, for example, the couple were students or recent graduates, the possibility of the couple being able to stay together in the UK would be unlikely, even if they had a strong support network from friends and family.

If the couple were in a situation like ours, where the couple lived abroad and wished to return to the UK, they would either need large savings, or the UK citizen would need to return to the UK and begin to earn £18,600 before they'd be able to start the immigration process. Even for relatively successful graduates like Mark and myself, saving up £60,000 is a pipe dream right now. The choice would be that, or separation. I should note that the thresholds are higher when there are more family members involved (ie children).

We have done long-distance. We did it for a long time. Transatlantic separation is not easy, even when children aren't involved. 

The other policy element that concerns me is the extension of the probationary period from two to five years. Again, let's look at the US policy to compare.

I currently have a two year conditional US Green Card. This is because when I came to the USA Mark and I had not yet been married for two years. We need to prove that we are in a bonafide marriage. Fair enough. Before the two years are up (by mid-2014) we must prove that we are still living in marital union before I can receive a full 10 year Green Card, no conditions attached. A year after that I can apply for US citizenship. It is a long, bureaucratic, expensive, but entirely fair process.

The new UK policy requires a five year probation. This is regardless of how long the couple have been married. Ms May explains thusly:
The main aim of introducing a five year probationary period is to better test the
genuine nature of the relationship before the migrant spouse or partner is
granted settlement. However, the Government believes it will also assist migrant
spouses and partners to integrate into British life before reaching settlement.
If Mark and I did ever plan to move back to the UK, it would likely be after I gained US citizenship and became a dual citizen. By then we would have been married for at least five years. The UK would then wish to test the "genuine nature" of our marriage for another five years. We would be married for a decade before the UK believed we were in a bonafide relationship, and we got married in the UK!

Mark and I have no plans to move to the UK in the near future. But now, if Mark and I ever did wish to return to the UK together, it's highly improbable that we will be able to.

When we got engaged back in 2009, we weighed up our options, our life plans, our situations, and the two immigration processes. Many couples in our situation make these calculated decisions every day. We made, and stuck to, the decision to move to the USA. But the option to return to the UK had been open to us, until now.

I suspect many couples will have pondered a similar decision in the past few months only to discover that one option is no longer realistically open to them. If they don't have £60,000 in the bank, or the UK citizen is not currently in the UK and earning beyond the minimum wage, living in the UK together is likely no longer an option.

The choice between spouse and country is not an easy one to make. I like my birth country, but I also like being allowed to spend time with my husband. When my blotchy, tear-stained face appeared on TV as part of the Britain in a Day movie, I said "It will be hard for me to leave. But it is so much harder to be apart from my husband." Immigration is an emotive subject, and family immigration is especially so.

I have no problem - and never will have a problem - showing the genuine nature of my marriage if it is part of a process that reduces or deters illegal immigration, forced marriage, or marriage scams. But I do not believe these new policies in the UK are part of such a process. I believe they are part of a process to reduce or deter (legal) immigration full stop.  It breaks my heart, but it also boggles my mind.

If you read the policy guidelines from the UKBA, they already pre-empt legal challenges on the basis of Article 8 of the Human Rights Act: The right to a family. The Economist also expects this to happen, though the outcomes are uncertain. I'd personally like to see these guidelines overturned.

New UK Family immigration rules leave little choice for international couples
On a lighter note, they're also changing the UK citizenship test. I think there should be a tea drinking/biscuit dunking test, a long queue (us Brits love queues), and a Eurovision songwriting contest. The person who writes a winning song for the UK gets automatic citizenship.

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