Britain: don’t marry a foreigner unless you’re rich

by Chris Bertram on November 19, 2011

I blogged the other day about the new restrictions the UK is planning to impose on would-be migrants, making it impossible for all but the super-rich to acquire permanent residency and forcing others into Gastarbeiter status (to be kicked out after five years). It gets worse. The government’s Migration Advisory Committee has now recommended that anyone seeking to sponsor a foreign (non-EU) spouse to enter the UK has to be in the top half of the income distribution (I simplify slightly). Read Matt Cavanagh on the topic here and the Free Movement blog here. So think through the implications. A British student goes to grad school in the US (for example), meets an American and marries: such a person would, under these proposals, be unable to return to the UK with their partner to live as a couple. If two countries were to adopt such rules and their nationals met and married, they would have the right to live as a couple in neither country. Iniquitous and unjust.



Darius Jedburgh 11.19.11 at 6:41 pm

When you say “all but impossible for the super-rich,” do you mean to say “impossible for all but the super-rich”?


Steve Williams 11.19.11 at 7:14 pm

This policy directly affects me. I am a British citizen, in a long-term relationship with a Canadian citizen. We met in a third country, where we were both working. Our jobs – both ESL teachers – place us comfortably in the bottom 50% of the income distribution (in fact, my Chinese wages probably place me in the bottom 10% of the income distribution, although above the current bottom limit according to the Guardian article).

I know that I’m slowly being forced to choose between my country and my relationship with my partner. It’s a terrible feeling.


Sebastian (2) 11.19.11 at 7:39 pm

The US already has such rules. They’re much less restrictive – you need to prove household income above 125% of the poverty line (which is frighteningly low, for better or worse) and you can compensate lack of income through proven assets and you can have a third party vouch for you, but there are certainly scenarios in which this makes things hard.


Chris Bertram 11.19.11 at 8:03 pm

#1 Yes thanks! fixed.


Gareth Rees 11.19.11 at 8:07 pm

Do these proposed restrictions contravene article 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights?


cian 11.19.11 at 8:13 pm

Seems unlikely if the existing restrictions don’t.


Chris Bertram 11.19.11 at 8:56 pm

#5 I think you mean Article 8 on family life. And yes, they almost certainly do, even though those rights are not absolute.


Neville Morley 11.19.11 at 9:27 pm

And that’s precisely the article that various people in the UK government have explicitly pledged to repeal or revise out of existence as it’s interfering with their wish to throw people out of the country. Cue absurd myths about pet cats.


Meredith 11.19.11 at 10:00 pm

Fire and water: two things you never refuse another human being, a stranger at your door. When you’re not strangers anymore: ius commercii and ius conubii, legally protected relationships in trading goods and of marriage. Pretty basic stuff. The barbarians are at the gates, indeed.


Matt 11.19.11 at 10:52 pm

The somewhat similar US rule mentioned above by Sebastian (2), does have some real bite, though a lot less than this proposed one seems likely to have. I don’t have immediate access to up-to-date or clearly broken out figures (it’s hard to get completely specific figures), but, for example, in 1999, about 39,000 immigrant visa applications were turned down on the grounds that the applicant hadn’t shown that he or she was not “likely to become a public charge”. That’s a big number, and bad for the people involved, but a very small percentage of the total immigrant visa population.

When I applied for a visa for my wife, and had to show that I could support a “household of our size” (2) at 125% of the poverty level, I was able to do that on my graduate student stipend- I think $17,000 at the time (2001). This was just barely enough, and I suspect the amount is a bit higher now, but it’s still much below that being recommended in the proposals above. (If my rough recollection of exchange rates is right, the lower end proposal that might pass is close to $30,000, so significantly more than in the US. (In the US immigrants are not eligible to use most public benefits for at least 5 years, though, too.) I’m not convinced that all such rules are necessarily unjust, though there is lots of room to go wrong, and this proposal seems pretty clearly to be in the wrong spectrum, especially if the high-end proposals are followed. At the risk of engaging in self-promotion, I wrote a paper on just this subject, published in Law and Philosophy, and available free here:


engels 11.20.11 at 12:17 am

It isn’t watertight because even though you can’t get British citizenship by marrying into a poor family you can still get it by being born into one. How long till compulsory sterilisation is back on the agenda? At a stroke it would also solve the problem of benefit claimants having more than their allotted number of children, which as we all know is the cause of all the treasury’s woes…


engels 11.20.11 at 12:45 am

Also, what message does this send out about the attractiveness of us Brits?

“Well, of course, if they paid me a bit more I’d be here on my wedding night with a Swede or a Brazilian but I’m only on £20 000 / year so you’ll do fine, love.”


john b 11.20.11 at 2:27 am

1) This policy is scarily mad and evil, and yet another indicator that the “NuLab were just as bad as the Tories, what’s the point in voting for them?” crowd were wrong.

2) That said, and mostly out of curiosity – what’s the score on British passport-holders bringing their spouses to other EU countries? AIUI, every EU country has to apply the same immigration rules to other EU nationals as to home citizens, so the hypothetical Anglo-American couple above could at least go and live in Ireland. But I may UI wrongly.


john b 11.20.11 at 2:31 am

Oh, also, 3) despite Chris’s example, this is really about as close to a White Britain policy as could conceivably fit within any current legal frameworks (if it does, which it probably doesn’t).

In real life, pretty much any Anglo-American / Anglo-Australian / etc couple are going to be capable of pulling gbp12.5k apiece, even if it means having to jump stupid hoops like dropping out of grad school and working long hours until the visa’s granted. The same will be true much less frequently where one partner is from the developing world…


Peter T 11.20.11 at 3:49 am


the barbarians are not at the gates. They have been ruling us for quite some time.


Meredith 11.20.11 at 4:29 am

Peter T,
Yes. I had the mental image of the gatekeepers themselves as the barbarians.
It would be nice if this extreme proposal in the UK were to draw attention to what I suspect is a widespread problem. It’s certainly a problem for US citizens who want to marry a non-US citizen and live in this country. (For instance, for my son and his Canadian girlfriend.) We’re big on international treaties and such for commerce and finance. Why not for marriage?


Odm 11.20.11 at 4:44 am

@14 (john b): According to the Free Movement post the threshold is for the income of the UK-based sponsor only.


nick s 11.20.11 at 5:18 am

According to the Free Movement post the threshold is for the income of the UK-based sponsor only.

Which makes it an absurdity. Suppose a female British expat in the US, married to a US citizen, wishes for the family to return to the UK to raise their British citizen child? The American spouse may be capable of earning more than enough to support the family, but the mother’s income, diminished by maternity leave, is the determinant?

I suppose she could pack up the child to be educated in a British boarding school, which is the Tory-approved way.


john b 11.20.11 at 10:50 am

Amazingly, the proposal is less racist, more classist, more anti-business, and more objectively stupid than I thought.

This is probably a failing of my analysis of Tories – I should start assuming that they’re solely a party based on lower-middle-class warfare, and that they have mostly given up hating people on the basis of ethnicity.

Actually, this leads to a powerful analytic conception of the two UK parties.

Under NuLab, the rich and UMC do OK, and the gap between the LMC and the poor is narrowed; under the Tories, the rich and UMC do OK, and the gap between the LMC and the poor is widened.

While objectively this makes NuLab better, one can see why the people who’re subject to the narrowing seek to burn Mr Brown in effigy, and are happy when the Tories throw the poor out of their houses to starve in the streets.


Linca 11.20.11 at 12:49 pm

I already heard a few years ago of Danish citizens marrying non-EU people living in nearby Sweden because of the same kind of racist policies…


Chris Bertram 11.20.11 at 1:00 pm

Yes Linca. One particularly bad Danish policy has an age threshold for sponsorship of 25, meaning that many young Danes with non-EU spouses have to live in places like Malmo. The British copied the Danish policy, with a threshold of 21, and this has just been found to be in contravention of Article 8 of the ECHR by the UK Supreme court. It follows that the Danish policy should also be in contravention, though it hasn’t been tested yet. Generally the Danes and the British seem to compete (and copy) to have the most offensive policies.


cian 11.20.11 at 1:00 pm

This policy is scarily mad and evil, and yet another indicator that the “NuLab were just as bad as the Tories, what’s the point in voting for them?” crowd were wrong.

Erm, Labour passed a number of evil immigration policies themselves. I think the general argument was that Labour aren’t much better than the Tories. Which I find hard to argue with.


Philip 11.20.11 at 2:37 pm

The Tories have already brought in a minimum level of English reqiuired for Spouse visa. The level is very low, you need to pass a beginner level exam from the UKBA approved list of tests. The main effect is to stop people from the sub-continent coming over as they tend to be poor and can’t access English lessons or the approved tests. The government justified the policy by saying it would improve integration, at the same time they have cut funding for ESOL courses for adults. Theresa May has now become my most hated UK politician, I just hope this UK Border Force stuff backfires on her.


cian 11.20.11 at 5:07 pm

Well Theresa May is also one of the stupidest Tories in the cabinet – which given the competition (Michael Gove, George Osbourne) is quite a feat.

I mean the policy on professionals seems designed to piss off just about everyone, other than a few senile Tory backbenchers. Its not often you can unite the civil liberties lobby with big business, but she’s managed it.


Ingrid Robeyns 11.20.11 at 9:29 pm

Thanks for sharing Chris. I don’t know what to say, except that I’m feeling increasingly surrounded by dark, dark clouds. What worries me most is that we may say that the Barbarians rule us, yet many of us voted for them, isn’t it? (even in electoral systems where it’s not straightforward to ‘buy’ votes with campaign spending). A celebrated Dutch photographer (whose name I forgot, sorry) mentioned the other day that the current public atmosphere is similar to the one from the interbellum: is it? (a few months ago, I’d say that person was nuts, but I’m no longer sure).


john b 11.20.11 at 11:49 pm

cian: not that Labour weren’t bad in many ways – they were – but the question was whether or not people who voted for a party other than Labour in a marginal constituency with a head-to-head Labour/Tory contest were doing something stupid and counterproductive. At the time, people used the fact that Labour was nasty on immigration, benefits (and so on) to justify behaviour that ultimately helped the Tories win. They were wrong to do so, because the Tories have, as could reasonably have been predicted, turned out to be to the right of Labour at everything.

(win here = ‘be the largest single party with enough seats that an alternative coalition would almost certainly have been unworkable’)


Pär Isaksson 11.21.11 at 8:57 am

so what you are saying is that those voters were objectively pro-Tory?


Henri Vieuxtemps 11.21.11 at 9:43 am

I don’t know, I suppose there are two ways to look at this (and all that European austerity stuff in general). One is, obviously, the “barbarians at the gates” angle, but that assumes that neoliberal welfare states created in the last 30 years are still capable of functioning, limping along somehow. But of course another angle might be to say that these events simply indicate the utter failure of the whole “third way” idea, neoliberal welfare state. Time for something new.


Emma in Sydney 11.21.11 at 10:43 am

British rules on this kind of thing have been horrible for a long time. Two of three of my children (whose father is British) have British citizenship. The eldest can’t, because she was already over 18 when the European Court forced the British to stop discriminating against the children of British men who were not legally married to the non-British mothers of their children. The two younger ones just scraped in. One of them is now trying to sponsor his Australian girlfriend into Britain. Why, I don’t know, but there you have it.


sg 11.21.11 at 11:06 am

Steve @2: just move to Canada. Why would you want to return to Britain? Or better still … you’re in Asia. Just stay here. It’s far more civilized than the western hemisphere.


Chris Bertram 11.21.11 at 11:24 am

Emma: horrible indeed, but not especially so. The United States, for example, is pretty restrictive when it comes to unmarried men (rather than women) passing on citizenship rights to their offspring born overseas.


cian 11.21.11 at 11:59 am

John b:

Well there are many reasons for voting. I didn’t vote for my local labour MP in a marginal seat because I didn’t like her, I didn’t like her politics, and didn’t like the way that she was parachuted in. I simply couldn’t bring myself to vote for her. I wasn’t alone in that in my constituency at the time.

And while the Tories have been worse, Labour ended up being far worse than the previous Tory government were. The choice seems to have been between a slow slide into nastiness, or a fast slide. Its really not much of a choice in practice. Again, I know a lot of people who just couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Labour in the last election. It wasn’t they didn’t know that the Tories would be worse, but they couldn’t vote for Labour. And its Labour that’s alienated much of their core vote.


Matt 11.21.11 at 12:33 pm

The United States, for example, is pretty restrictive when it comes to unmarried men (rather than women) passing on citizenship rights to their offspring born overseas.

The U.S. rule is at least objectionable for applying different rules to men and women (especially now that the plausible reasons for doing so are not really valid, given that DNA testing is both very accurate and often required for certain immigration cases anyway.) Whether it’s “pretty restrictive” or not I don’t know- what it requires is the “legitimation” of the child before the age of 18 or the paternity to be established by court order, or the father to “acknowledge” the child in writing or under oath, as well as to establish paternity by clear and convincing evidence. This is all very easy to do for anyone who wants to do so and knows of the child before it is 18. The problematic cases have come up when the (now former) child wants to get U.S. citizenship for one reason or another after she or he is 18. I’m really not sure how this compares to other countries, but in general the U.S. is more generous about giving out citizenship than most, so I’d be surprised if it were much easier in other places. Importantly, though, there’s little difficulty for an unmarried man who wants to pass on his US citizenship to a child born abroad in doing so if it’s done before the child is 18. It’s not automatic (I tend to think it should be) but it’s not hard, either, with the rules being essentially formal.


Chris Bertram 11.21.11 at 1:27 pm

Matt: so yes, in Emma’s example the case was a child >18, and my point was that the UK seemed no worse than, for example, the US. I had the Nguyen case in mind, having read about it in Shachar’s _Birthright Lottery_.


Matt 11.21.11 at 1:41 pm

I don’t know enough about Emma’s situation to say w/ 100% certainty, (and would understand if she didn’t want to discuss personal details on a blog!) but if the father of her children had treated them as his children publicly before the 18th birthday, was acknowledged as the father, etc., then under US law they would be citizens- the marriage as such doesn’t matter. Cases where citizenship isn’t passed down to children of US citizen fathers are basically limited to ones where the father has no involvement (or extremely limited) before the age of 18. The well-known cases are mostly of the children of former military men who served over-seas. Importantly, what must be done before the age of 18 is the steps above, not formally filing paperwork to establish citizenship. It _sounded_ to me like Emma’s case would have certainly been in under US law, since it would be odd to have three kids with someone without their acknowledging parenthood in the required way.


Chris Bertram 11.21.11 at 1:55 pm

But Matt, that’s surely not correct. In Nguyen, he had been in the care of his father for most of his life, raised as a permanent resident in Texas.


Matt 11.21.11 at 2:16 pm

Yes- there are some formal steps that must be done (those I’d mentioned above), and they were not done in the Nguyen case. (Why, I don’t know.) I don’t mean to defend the law, which is a bad one. But if Nguyen’s father had “legitimated” him (this can often just mean if his name had been on the birth certificate) or had declared himself to be the father in writing or under oath, before the age of 18, it would have been fine. He didn’t do those things for one reason or another, and that’s what caused the trouble. Again, a dumb rule, but a fairly easy one to comply with. (The law makes things harder for unmarried couples with kids in many ways, this being just one of them. I think this is bad, and should be changed, but usually, including in cases like this one, it’s not something that can’t be gotten around.)

(I should note that I’m not very fond of Shachar’s book, for reasons made well by, among others, Sarah Song, Michael Blake, Víctor Muñiz-Fraticelli, and, if I may be immodest, me, in this paper:

(Among other problems, (Muniz-Fraticelli is especially good on this) the analogy of citizenship to fee simple property rights doesn’t really work, and obscures a lot more than it makes clear, and her own alternative is deeply implausible unless it’s seen as a supplement, not an alternative, to more traditional methods. This is just the start to the problems, though.)


Chris Bertram 11.21.11 at 2:29 pm

Thanks for the link Matt. I found the Shachar’s book stimulating (though horribly repetitive) and the taxation proposals implausible. The ius nexi stuff I liked rather better.


Eric H 11.21.11 at 4:42 pm

Could this be characterized as a pro-discrimination law?


Scott 11.21.11 at 4:48 pm

I’m living in Canada because I couldn’t make enough money in Australia to sponsor my wife. We’re both low, low income people. Australia has a fairly modest income requirement, but Canada doesn’t have any requirement at all.

I have a cousin who married a Swedish scientist (PhD researcher in epilepsy) and the Australian government gave her a hard time. Immigration brings out the worst in all governments, as far as I can tell.


Watson Ladd 11.21.11 at 5:36 pm

Its nice to see people finally realize that the rhetoric of national solidarity has a dark side. So long as we accept that some rights belong to citizens and others to aliens this will be the inevitable result.


cian 11.21.11 at 5:43 pm

Watson would it be possible for you to think before spouting the party line. Whatever the rights and wrongs of national solidarity (and I’m guessing most people on this blog are not, you know, massively into it) – there’s nothing inevitable about it this kind of thing. It is one possible outcome. There are others.

The reasons that countries have their particular immigration laws vary according to the hcountry. In some countries they get better, in others they get worse. These things are complex, and you have a really annoying habit of trying to fit everything into very simple deterministic models of the world.


homunq 11.21.11 at 6:26 pm

I am already prevented from living in my country of birth – the USA – because my wife failed a marijuana test 8 years ago, and then yelled at someone (no physical threats) when they denied her her visa. We now have a 7-year-old daughter.

So yes, it sucks.


Watson Ladd 11.21.11 at 6:36 pm

cian, so long as some rights belong to nationals and others do not who is or is not a national will be important. Nationalism always regards immigrants with suspicion and so doesn’t care about them. The welfare state that refuses to admit immigrants to protect its benefits will naturally deny other rights. If we accept that hitting animals is a sign of cruelty and a willingness to be unjust, why not nationalism?


engels 11.21.11 at 6:40 pm

If we accept that hitting animals is a sign of cruelty and a willingness to be unjust, why not nationalism?

An interesting example of deductive reasoning…


cian 11.21.11 at 6:57 pm

So its not possible for you to think before posting then, Watson. Sigh.


Watson Ladd 11.21.11 at 7:22 pm

cian, in nationalism we say some people are more deserving of claims upon us then others for no other reason then accident of birth. You say that this is a principle compatible with ideas of morality and justice for all. I say it isn’t for the same reasons that a law permitting the mistreatment of animals is not: not because we could not make it fit, but the kind of person who does one does not refrain from further injustice. We don’t let people justify racism on the basis that whites are naturally united by moral claims, but we do privilege the nation in this way.


Emma in Sydney 11.21.11 at 7:43 pm

As Scott point out, lots of governments give spouses a hard time in immigration, which sucks. Britain until recently, unlike most of Europe, discriminated against the children of parents who chose not to legally marry but limited the access to citizenship to those under 18 in 2006 (and under 18 going forward). In my daughter’s case, her dad was on her birth certificate from the day she was registered, and in Australia we were treated no differently from a family based on a farcical ceremony. Which is why it was a surprise. She will have to make do with a working holiday visa, like her mother did.


cian 11.21.11 at 7:46 pm

You say that this is a principle compatible with ideas of morality and justice for all.

I do? I seem to be discovering all kinds of interesting things that I “apparently” believe today. Are you sure it isn’t my evil twin who believes these things?

What you said Watson: So long as we accept that some rights belong to citizens and others to aliens this will be the inevitable result.

Inevitable. Really. This particular result is inevitable. It is inevitable that countries will seek to exclude the non British spouses of poor British people, or the other inequities people have mentioned on this thread. All these things are inevitable. ‘Likely’ I could have forgiven, even though it would be a dubious claim at best. But inevitable requires extraordinary proof. So where is it?


Matt 11.21.11 at 9:46 pm

This story and my wife’s EEA1 permit application has opened up a whole hornet’s nest of inhumane stupidity.

I am a UK citizen teaching at an international school in the EU and my wife is from China. We have a 2 year old son who renounced his Chinese citizenship to travel on a UK passport. I don’t have any short term wish to move my family back to the UK but I always thought that it would be an automatic entitlement should we ever make that decision.

This is ringing alarm bells. Let’s say the Euro collapses and I get made redundant or hyper inflation effectively halves my income. Would the UK government choose to break up families of its overseas citizens who are returning to their home country after losing their livelihoods overseas?

My wife is currently in limbo simultaneously applying for an EAA1 travel permit and a local residency permit at the same time. Getting any qualified UK diplomat to answer the phone or reply t an Email was quite tricky. It’s all been dehumanised and roboticised through outsourcing the process to Worldbridge who handle the biometric identification processing. Worldbridge staff are polite but don’t understand non standard issues such as the best way of processing an application in time for Christmas or what documents should be sent as originals or copies. Charging 14 USD for an information line that it not able to resolve a query is beyond scandal. I was able to escalate a complaint to a diplomat who booked an appointment by going on about my two year old son not being able to see his grandparents at Christmas.

I wrote a lengthy complaint to a standard customer service Email at the UK border agency about the lack of transparency, the poor design of the website and the stupidity of having to submit the same documents everytime we apply for a visa after 5 years of marriage, 3 previous visits and a British son accompanying us. The same diplomat replied so it feels like I have a case worker who recommended applying for a 5 year visit or having to go through the biometric identification with each fresh application. I just looked at the UKBA website and a 5 year visa costs 486 pounds.

Anyway, Brits with foreign spouses need a champion such as Joana Lumley to embarrass politicians for crass stupidity in putting economic calculations over fundamental human rights for families (especially those with children) to stay together.

Is there a good place to see all the numbers.
How many Brits are married to non EU spouses?
How many of those have children who are UK citizens?
How many of them live in and outside the UK?
What would be the economic impact of all those with foreign spouses choosing to live in the UK if income was not taken into account assuming each marriage was verified as genuine?


Barry 11.22.11 at 1:46 pm

john b 11.20.11 at 2:27 am

” 1) This policy is scarily mad and evil, and yet another indicator that the “NuLab were just as bad as the Tories, what’s the point in voting for them?” crowd were wrong.”

What I’m wondering about is that I heard that there was a *third* party in the UK, currently in coalition with the Tories. I also heard that this supposed third party was more liberal, or something like that.

Is this just a foolish belief of an ignorant American?


cian 11.22.11 at 3:11 pm

Yes, but the foolish belief was shared by many Brits.


brenda 11.22.11 at 6:30 pm

Emma: horrible indeed, but not especially so. The United States, for example, is pretty restrictive when it comes to unmarried men (rather than women) passing on citizenship rights to their offspring born overseas.

For another, even more illogical example: Up until the late 70s, Canada did not automatically grant citizenship to the children of Canadian mothers living overseas. Fathers yes (don’t know how/if marital status came in to it) but mothers, no.



Matt 11.22.11 at 7:50 pm

For a long time citizenship rules discriminated against women quite explicitly. In the US (and probably other countries) a citizen woman who married a foreigner could lose her citizenship, though she might be able to get it back if the marriage ended. This started ending in the US in the 1920’s, but still applied to women who married Asian men until 1934. Similarly, it was only in 1934 that citizenship passed from mothers to children. (The two laws are obviously related in the US case, though I’m not sure about other countries. ) A somewhat similar law, now changed, is what would have made it dubious that Obama was a US citizen if he’d been born over-seas, as the law at the time required the mother to be older (21 maybe, though I’ll not look it up now) to pass on citizenship via birth. That’s no longer the case. So, there are lots of examples of this sort of bad stuff. Many, perhaps most, states had been getting better, so I’m sorry to see the backsliding.

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