How the government's immigration rules are tearing families apart

The new minimum income threshold of £18,600 has separated thousands of British citizens from their partners and children.

The government’s quest for lower migration levels to the UK has driven a series of major reforms to the immigration rules since 2010. But as recent debate about the costs of reducing international students suggests, restrictive policies can have wider, and sometimes unintended, consequences.

new report, launched today by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration, has highlighted the impacts of recent rule changes on a group who would not previously have expected to be affected by tough immigration rules: ordinary British citizens hoping to build a family in the UK with a non-EEA husband, wife or partner.

The centrepiece of the new family migration rules, which came into force last July, is a new, fixed income requirement which now must be met by all British citizens and permanent residents seeking to sponsor a non-EEA spouse or partner to live with them in the UK.

The income requirement is £18,600 per year, higher than the annual earnings of almost half of the UK working population, and rises to over £22,000 if the UK sponsor wants to bring in a child or children as well as a spouse. Only the income of the UK sponsor can be counted for most applications at the initial stage, and the permissible assets and savings sources of the couple are strictly limited.

All this means that the family reunion rules in the UK are now tougher than in many other western countries, including the US, Canada, Australia and elsewhere across the EU. Last year, the government anticipated that this change would result in up to 17,800 fewer family visas being granted every year and claimed that keeping the bar high for family migration could result in savings to the welfare bill.

One year on, these rules have indeed divided thousands of British citizens from their family members. Recent immigration statistics show that in the year to March 2013, the number of partner entry clearance visa grants had already dropped by nearly 6,000, with further decreases expected over the coming period.

But the story behind the numbers, as shown by today’s APPG on Migration report, is that these rules have prevented a wide range of British citizens who are likely to be perfectly able to support their family members in the UK from doing so. Among others, the following three issues have arisen.

Firstly, the £18,600 income requirement is far above the level of the national minimum wage (approximately £12,800 per annum). This means that many full-time taxpayers working in, for example, healthcare, service and clerical occupations, who have sought to sponsor a non-EEA partner since last July have fallen considerably short of the mark. People based outside the south east have been particularly disadvantaged by the income requirement as a result of pay differences between London and the rest of the country. 

Secondly, some families with considerable resources available to them - for example through the earnings of the non-EEA partner, or through wider family support - have also been prevented from living together in the UK. This has arisen from the restrictions built into the rules which demand that, for the majority of applications, the earnings of the non-European spouse or partner cannot be counted towards meeting the requirement.

Finally, the inability of some couples to meet the income requirement has impacted on wider family members. A number of British children, including babies, have been separated from a non-EEA parent unable to enter the UK since last July as a result of the income requirement. This has had new and perhaps unforeseen costs to the public purse, with some single parents reporting the need to claim benefits for the first time in order to support their family alone.

All this adds up to show that the government’s family migration policy has hit ordinary British people who have found that, one way or another, they have been denied the choice of living with their husband or wife in their home country.

If these are not the consequences that were intended by government, then it is time to look again at the rules to ensure that the balance is right in this area. If they were intended, then perhaps it is time to put the wider objective of cutting net migration under proper scrutiny.

Ruth Grove White is policy director of the Migrants Rights Network
David Cameron talks to UK border agency officials in their control room during a visit to Heathrow Terminal 5. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ruth Grove White is policy director of the Migrants Right Network

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war