Britain's Home Office has announced that people from Northern Ireland will be treated as EU citizens within the UK for immigration purposes. The change comes on the back of a lengthy legal challenge taken by County Derry native Emma Desouza and her US-born husband Jake. Their case started as a “simple” request for a residency permit for Jake, but grew into something which interrogated the meaning of identity, citizenship, and the Good Friday Agreement all the while taking place under the shadow of Brexit’s negative implications for Northern Ireland.
In the midst of this storm were thousands of families, Northern Irish people and their foreign partners, trying to find a way to live together.
But the changes mean people can now use a free and relatively straightforward residency application for their partners, and say goodbye to the anxiety of the costly and stringent rules of the UK immigration system altogether.
For Julia Andrade Rocha, a Brazilian-American living in Belfast with her Northern Irish partner Dave, the news has come as a huge relief after years of uncertainty.
“Every time I feel like I'm in a secure financial situation, my visa [renewal] comes round,” Julia told me. “Any money that we could have used towards paying for the deposit of a house, anything like that, it just gets completely eaten up.”
Spousal visas (including solicitor fees and other associated costs) typically cost several thousand pounds, and only last for two and a half years.
“Unless it's part of your reality – people probably don't realise how big of an impact that is, to have that kind of uncertainty.”
While for couples like Julia and Dave this change has brought good news, they are keenly aware of all the other families in the UK who are still left out. “It’s a cause of celebration for people in Northern Ireland,” Julia said. “But for people in England, or Scotland or Wales, it's still a very unfair system. To tell families that you have to meet a certain income, you have to work a certain type of job, it almost is like putting a price on family, which is I think really shameful.”
Introduced by then-Home Secretary Theresa May in 2012 as part of her drive to reduce immigration, the “minimum income threshold” means that a UK citizen had to make at least £18,600 a year (more if they have children) if they want to sponsor their partner to live here. Because 40 percent of British nationals working full-time or part-time don’t earn enough to meet this threshold, tens of thousands of families have been separated as a result.
The rules have a disproportionate effect on people in Northern Ireland: While only 27 percent of people in London can’t meet that income salary, in NI it is almost 50 percent.
Because people in Northern Ireland are also entitled to Irish citizenship, one way to circumvent this problem is to renounce their British citizenship. Such a move has legal implications, but just as important are considerations of identity. For many people here Britishness forms, or forms part of, their identity and renouncing it was not an option. Others, like Emma Desouza, identify only as Irish – and thus feel they shouldn’t be asked to renounce a citizenship they never had.
Faced with a number of unattractive options, immigration solicitors told me that some clients have moved to other countries with less stringent immigration rules. Having access to Irish (and therefore EU) citizenship has meant that people from Northern Ireland have been able to confidently move to other EU countries, without having to worry what their status there would be post-Brexit.
Matt Ralphson, originally from Belfast, lives with his Guatemalan partner Carlos Pivaral in Manchester. The couple had been making alternative plans to cover all eventualities when Carlos’ visa expires next year. “You read the horror stories about people being refused,” Matt said. “Because of whoever's processing it has had a bad day.”
He remembers the “joy and just relief” on hearing about the new rules. The couple now have more rights, more realistic options, and a lot less anxiety – the income threshold won’t apply and they won’t be subject to any more fees. But they are still holding their breath; previous applications have put the couple through “a huge amount of stress”.
“We have a general deep mistrust of the Home Office,” Matt told me.
That “deep distrust” is still very much a live issue for Jeremy and Mary Dodds.
Jeremy relocated back to Northern Ireland with his family last August, after over 20 years working in the US. Speaking from their home in Holywood, County Down, the couple told me about their shock when Mary, who is a US citizen, was told by the Home Office to leave the country. “It was just shocking,” Jeremy said. “That was a pure slap in the face and an insult, what they wrote in that letter.”
Since that initial refusal the couple have sought to put “as many irons in the fire as possible” and have submitted several applications, including a 74-page application. “You would have needed a PhD to go through it! It took us three days to get it done,” Jeremy said. Thankfully, the new rules will ultimately make it easier for Mary, Jeremy and their son to stay together.
Immigration solicitors told me that some Northern Irish families may now decide to move back home to avail of the new system, and that applications must be made before the EU Settlement Scheme closes in June 2021. But the changes are only for people from Northern Ireland – if you are English, Scottish or Welsh, moving there won’t make you eligible, unfortunately.
For now at least, many families are sleeping easier. Speaking shortly after the government’s announcement, Emma DeSouza said that while the years of court cases have been difficult on her, she was thankful for the positive impact it has had on other families. “Seeing them now have the ability to access their rights without being forced to renounce British citizenship, or without having to spend years in court, is a relief that is hard to put into words.”