This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
This Valentine's day thousands of people from the UK will be alone, and not because they don't have anyone they would like to spend it with. Rather, because their spouse is barred from the UK by the country's increasingly draconian immigration policy.
In Swansea, a married couple are currently crowdfunding to avoid becoming another pair of victims of the government's spousal visa minimum income requirement, which a 2013 report by a group of MPs and peers described as "tearing UK families apart and causing anguish."
Brandon, a US citizen, moved to Wales in 2012 to live with his British wife, who has schizophrenia and has, in the past, made several attempts on her life. Recently, Brandon's wife's disability benefit has been cut, leaving Brandon in danger of being deported if he can't pay for expensive legal advice (like many immigration cases, Brandon's no longer qualifies for legal aid) or find full-time employment.
Since the summer of 2012, UK citizens have been required to prove an annual minimum income of £18,600 ($29,000) in order to be eligible to sponsor a spousal visa — more than £5,000 ($7,700) above the annual UK minimum wage. In effect, this means that poorer people—or around half of the population—aren't allowed to bring a partner to live with them in the country where they were born.
In the year ending June 2014, 25 percent of family visas were rejected, which works out as nearly 12,000 families denied the right to live together. And those are just the ones that applied for visas—there are probably many more who have sought pricey legal advice or spent hours studying the rules just to realize that it's not even worth trying. Or, perhaps they couldn't afford to pay the £601 ($925) visa fee applicants are required to submit with their spousal visa application.
Brandon's friend Pete, who set up the crowd-funding appeal for him, points out that, although the couple have had half an hour here and there of free legal advice, this is insufficient to "unravel the complexities of immigration law." The minimum income rule comes with caveats such as the visa sponsor having to have been employed for more than six months at the required salary and not having a child (a child boosts the minimum up to £22,400 [$34,500] a year).
Like many modern couples, Brandon and his wife met on Facebook, where nation state borders aren't a problem. "We started talking, I fell in love and eventually I moved down to Wales," Brandon told me. "I filled out all the paperwork and did everything we needed to do to emigrate."
Brandon's wife's mental health condition means she's unable to work, but in 2012 her disability benefit was sufficient to sponsor Brandon's visa. Since then, Brandon says her health hasn't improved. "She's still the same as when I met her," he says. In fact, Pete says that now she "relies on Brandon for care and support."
But the government believe otherwise. According to Brandon, operating by the "rule" that, if you get married, you suddenly become magically better. As a result, Brandon's wife has lost her disability payment of £60 ($92) per week, leaving both her and Brandon struggling to survive on a reduced amount intended for only one person. "Even worse is that this benefit cut means she can no longer sponsor Brandon for his spouse visa and he is likely to be deported back to the USA," says Pete.
Setting a compulsory minimum income for people wanting to bring their partner to the UK is based on the government's preoccupation with reducing immigration figures. The right-wing rhetoric of immigrants as benefit scroungers goes hand-in-hand with this plan.
When the Court of Appeal reluctantly upheld the minimum income threshold in the summer of 2014, the Conservative Immigration and Security Minister James Brokenshire said he was "delighted" with the ruling. "We welcome those who wish to make a life in the UK with their family, work hard and make a contribution, but family life must not be established in the UK at the taxpayer's expense and family migrants must be able to integrate," he said. "The minimum income threshold to sponsor family migrants is delivering these objectives and this judgment recognizes the important public interest it serves."
Brandon's wife has lost her disability payment of $92 per week, leaving both her and Brandon struggling to survive on a reduced amount, intended for only one person.
Other than the fact that the UK economy would be completely fucked without immigrants, this is nonsense because family visas explicitly prevent the recipient from accessing public funds. As a foreign national staying in the UK on a temporary spousal visa, Brandon, for example, is not entitled to claim benefits. But like many people in the UK, he's finding it impossible to get a job. "Times are really tough and there aren't a lot of jobs out there," he tells me. "I apply for jobs and no one calls me back."
"Brandon has attended interviews where employers have been impressed with his enthusiasm and skills, and has been offered irregular part-time or zero-hour contract work," says Pete. "But this is not an option as his wife's ESA and housing benefit are stopped when he works. And she needs professional help to fill in forms and to get letters of support from social services to evidence her condition each time he stops or starts work. To date she has done this eight times, and finds it a dehumanizing and distressing process."
Currently, Brandon contributes to the community by doing voluntary work at an environmental recycling center. He says he would accept any job offered and would even consider moving elsewhere—"anywhere in the world"—because the job market in Swansea is so bad. But of course, this is difficult to do without any money to make a new start with.
As well as asking people to contribute to Brandon's legal advice costs, the crowd-funding appeal is explicitly asking anyone in Wales with a full time, reliable job going to give Brandon a chance at working it. If nobody steps forward and Brandon doesn't find work, it's likely he'll be deported. Because Brandon's wife's mental health condition would immediately disqualify her from being eligible for a US visa—according to Brandon, "They don't want anyone that's a bit off, they only want super people,"—the couple would be separated, and Brandon would be unable to offer his wife the day-to-day support she needs.
At the time of the judgement in favour of a minimum income requirement, Ruth Grove-White, policy director at the Migrants Rights Network, stated : "These rules are a shocking infringement of the right to family life, as almost half of the UK working population earns below the required amount."
The European Convention on Human Rights takes a similar view, emphasizing the right to family and private life. It stipulates that this can be overridden only in the "interests of national security, public safety or the economic wellbeing of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others." Given that people on family visas have no access to public funds, it isn't clear how spousal immigration can damage any of these interests.
The government's disregard for Human Right's guidelines, erosion of legal aid, and inadequate benefits system have left Brandon, his wife, and many others in similar situations with nobody to turn to—except, it seems, strangers on the internet.
Right now, Brandon's marriage is under constant stress. "We fight and argue all the time about it," he says. "It's a really bad situation." He supports his wife the best he can, but, as Pete points out, the fear and threat of Brandon's deportation is a stressor that can make his wife very unwell.
The thing is, it would take very little to make things a lot better for them both. So far they've raised £416 ($640) toward the fairly small £605 ($931) figure they're asking for to cover legal advice. And even this might be unnecessary if a local business steps up and helps out. "Really," Brandon says, "I just need a job."
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