Why Theresa May's immigration proposals are a feminist issue
One of big news stories this week is that Home Secretary Theresa May has been briefing MPs on proposals to introduce a minimum income requirement for UK citizens who want their spouse from outside of the EU to live with them in this country. As part of the Coalition government’s drive to reduce immigration, anyone with an annual salary of less than £25,700 – or more if they have children – could be denied the right to settle down in their home country with the person they love.
Setting an income requirement means that the government are essentially telling some people that they are too poor to marry the partner of their choice in this country. The figure of £25,700 isn’t an extravagant wage; it is “average”, but this means that well over half of population earns less. It’s a little over twice the minimum wage, and more than the starting salary for newly qualified teachers or nurses. Up to 60% of the family visas issued last year would have been refused had this rule been applied.
At first glance, this might look like the government are simply further entrenching economic privilege, but when you look closer, it becomes clear that these proposals are a trainwreck of intersecting discrimination. The other proposed new conditions on family and spouse visas – namely that the foreign spouse must speak English, have an “attachment” to the UK, and that the couple should have an established relationship – appear to be aimed at preventing people of South Asian ethnicity from entering an arranged marriage with someone from the country their family emigrated from. It discriminates against same-sex couples, whose relationship may not be recognised in the non-British partner’s home country, giving them no grounds to apply for a spouse’s visa there. If the British partner becomes disabled due to an accident or illness and can no longer work, they could be forced to move to another country where appropriate medical treatment might be difficult to obtain, or could leave them bankrupt.
Like many of the current Westminster government’s policies, this is also an issue for feminists, because it has the potential to affect women more harshly than men. First of all, the gender pay gap means that it would be more difficult for a woman to earn enough to sponsor her foreign partner’s visa. But, more worryingly, it could be used to restrict women’s reproductive rights: the minimum income requirement is not static, but increases with the number of children that the couple is responsible for supporting. For some couples, staying together in the UK could be contingent on them not having children until the government decrees that they can afford them.
This means is that the government would be able to decide whether a couple should be allowed to raise a child in this country, based solely on their income and one partner’s place of birth. As it’s generally women who do the childbearing, this gives the government an unusual level of influence in individual women’s decisions about reproduction. Some couples might try to work around this in planning when to start trying the have children, but there’s no such thing as an infallible contraceptive, and just because a pregnancy wasn’t planned doesn’t mean that it isn’t ultimately wanted. What happens to the woman who unexpectedly finds herself pregnant when she doesn’t meet the income requirement to support a child, or the woman who has been told that her family can support one child, but ends up expecting twins? Would they be forced to choose between abortion and exile?
What a woman chooses to do with her uterus (if she has one) is a very personal decision, and supporting a woman’s right to continue her pregnancy is the other side of the pro-choice coin. Essentially, we’re arguing for a woman’s right to make decisions about her body and her future, but the choice is made less freely if the government tells her that one of her options will lead to her family’s permission to stay in this country being revoked.
While UK-born women with partners from overseas will suffer the stress of trying to maintain sufficiently well-paid employment in spite of the gender pay gap, and take the bare minimum of maternity leave so that it doesn’t affect their earnings, it is immigrant women with British partners who will arguably be worst affected. At the moment, spouse visas are initially granted for a two-year period before they become permanent, during which time they have no recourse to public funds; under the new proposals, the probationary period would be extended for up to five years. Someone who has no recourse to public funds is not allowed to claim benefits, or use certain public or voluntary sector services receiving state funds, including support for people experiencing domestic abuse (the overwhelming majority of whom are women in relationships with men).
Someone who would be made destitute by leaving an abusive relationship can apply to the Home Office for a special immigration status that allows her temporary access to refuges and other support services for up to three months. However, because there are additional bureaucratic hoops to jump through, it means that support isn’t available as quickly or as easily as it would be for an EU citizen or someone with indefinite leave to remain. These additional barriers to getting support could mean that some women feel forced to stay in an abusive relationship until their immigration status changes. Making spouses wait for five years to have “recourse to public funds” is likely to prolong some women’s suffering, and could increase the risk that they will become one of the two women a week who are murdered by their current or former partner.
This desperate attempt to reduce the level of migration into the UK sets a horrible precedent by putting a price tag on love and reproductive rights. The idea that your rights should be dependent on your income is abhorrent, but it seems to fit perfectly into the current government’s agenda.