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the human cost of Britain’s family visa reforms

Andrew Bean is doing one of the most prestigious doctorates in artificial intelligence in the UK but changes to Britain’s migration system have forced the 28-year-old American citizen to consider returning to the US.

His wife Stephanie, 28, who is British and works at a church in Oxfordshire, was able to sponsor his entry into the UK on a spousal visa as her salary met the criteria when they moved to England two years ago to both take up PhDs at Oxford university.

The Beans are among tens of thousands of people living in Britain who would no longer be eligible for a family visa this spring, after the government announced this week that the salary threshold will more than double.

Home secretary James Cleverly on Thursday set out reforms to the UK’s points-based migration system, including increasing the earnings threshold for skilled workers and prohibiting care workers from bringing over dependants.

But the biggest surprise was a sharp increase — from £18,600 to £38,700 — in the minimum salary that British citizens or migrants already settled in the UK must earn in order for immediate relatives to join them.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has pledged to slash net migration by 300,000, after levels reached a record high last year, and is specifically trying to reduce the number of people who come to the UK on low salaries or as dependants.

Downing Street said on Friday the threshold would apply to visa renewals as well as initial applications, but its message conflicted with that of the Home Office.

The Home Office said Sunak “has made clear current levels of migration to the UK are far too high”.

“We have a longstanding principle that anyone bringing dependants to live in the UK must be able to financially support them,” the Home Office said. “The minimum income requirement ensures that families are self-sufficient instead of relying on public funds, with the ability to integrate if they are to play a full part in British life.”

The government’s family immigration rules do contain a provision for “exceptional circumstances” where there would be unjustifiably harsh consequences for family members involved, although it is unclear how this will be applied.

When the Beans’ family visa renewal comes up in six months, they said their combined income would not be enough to meet the requirements.

“It’s very difficult for us to reconcile the UK’s push for research into AI with the fact [Andrew] may be sent home because I don’t make enough money,” said Stephanie, who is a Yale university graduate and whose baby was born in Britain. “It feels like a kick in the teeth.”

Elinor Dodgson with her son © Daniel Jones/FT

The decision to double the earnings threshold for sponsors is likely to make limited difference to overall net migration. Unpublished Home Office estimates put the reduction in the “low tens of thousands”.

When the government introduced a salary threshold in 2012, it was subject to a lawsuit. In 2016 the Supreme Court overruled the challenge, partly on the basis that the threshold had been determined by the government’s independent Migration Advisory Committee. The MAC was asked to assess the level at which a person could become a “burden on the state” by relying on benefits.

The Conservative government has discarded the methodology developed by the MAC, according to the committee’s chair Brian Bell, and set a higher threshold, the basis for which has not been disclosed. Bell said he believed the decision would also be subject to a legal challenge.

“The largest impacts will fall on lower-income British citizens, and particularly women and younger people who tend to earn lower wages,” said Madeleine Sumption, director of Oxford university’s Migration Observatory think-tank.

Elinor Dodgson is a case in point. The British-born 27-year-old met her partner Miguel in Tenerife four and a half years ago. But after struggling for some time with low wages and high living costs on the island, she moved to Suffolk, East England, with her baby son in August.

Taking a part-time job as a receptionist, she has been trying to build up her hours to reach the salary threshold of £18,600 so Miguel can join her. Now she fears these plans have been snatched away.

“We want to work, we don’t want to be funded by the state,” she said. “This situation is already so difficult for families. They are about to make it impossible for most.” 

Dodgson is desperate to find a better-paid job before the changes come into effect in the spring. But her efforts are likely to be in vain as the Home Office requires a sponsor’s income to be consistently above the threshold for at least six months at the time of applying. 

The other option for sponsors looking to bring over a foreign partner is to demonstrate they have held £62,500 in savings for six months.

For 32-year-old Zac Hill and his wife Pham from Vietnam, who moved together to Yorkshire this year, reaching the savings target is unimaginable. Hill is due to begin training as a police officer in January, earning roughly £23,000 a year.

Zac Hill and his wife Pham
Zac Hill and his wife Pham. For the couple, reaching the savings target to remain in the UK is unimaginable

Pham, 28, will return to Hanoi in January when her tourist visa runs out. The plan had been to return to the UK in summer 2024 sponsored by Zac, but she now sees no viable route to returning to Britain.

The earning potential of Pham, who has a masters degree in hotel management from Seville in Spain, is irrelevant because the Home Office does not take into account the prospective earnings of a non-UK citizen.

Hill is contemplating packing up and moving to Vietnam despite the fact the UK is facing a shortage of police officers.

“I am being punished for having the audacity to love someone from a different place. Everything we have planned and worked towards has been shattered,” Hill said.

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