In the heated discussions about immigration during the EU referendum debates, those who want to restrict the free movement of European citizens have continually presented us with arguments that set up 'migrants' and 'citizens' as two distinct groups with opposing interests. However, for many of us, migrants are family. One consequence of globalisation and international migration has been the growth of couples and families of mixed national origins. In the UK there are 435,800 couple families where one partner has UK nationality and the other has a non-UK but EU nationality and there are 664,900 couple families where one partner is from the UK and the other is from outside the EU (ONS 2014). What might the impact of Brexit be on these families? We have heard a lot about the broad economic arguments and about immigration statistics but very little on the impact of changes to immigration policy on the family life and personal well-being of both EU and British citizens, especially those on low incomes.
The case of British residents and citizens who are trying to sponsor non-EU partners to join them in the UK shows us the problematic outcomes of restrictions on free movement for transnational families on low incomes. In 2012 the government introduced a £18,600 minimum income threshold for British citizens and residents sponsoring non-EU partners and children to join them in the UK. The effects of this have been devastating. In my research with transnational couples I have spoken to people who have suffered significant deterioration in their mental health and severe financial strain as they try to maintain contact with partners abroad and face high legal expenses. Some British citizens have been driven to relocating to third countries in Europe in attempts to be reunited with their families through the Surinder Singh route (an option only available to those with the resources to do this) which makes use of the EU law on freedom of movement, which includes the right of return with a spouse. What will the impact of withdrawal from the EU be on these families? We also know from research from the Children's Commissioner about the suffering being experienced by at least 15,000 children living apart from one of their parents for extended periods of time and how. Most of the people I have spoken with have also said that their experience of these family immigration rules has shaken their sense of belonging in the UK. As one British man I interviewed said, 'because of what has happened I have completely lost faith and trust in my country'.
This attempt to regulate the transnational family reflects the renewed government agenda on 'deserving' and 'undeserving' social groups. Family immigration policy contains assumptions drawn from wider immigration policy and welfare policy agendas about the characteristics of the 'good migrant' and 'good citizen'. The minimum income threshold for sponsoring non-EU partners effectively links the right to family life with income levels. Just as responsible families engage in paid employment rather than claiming welfare, do not live in housing that is beyond their means and do not have more children than they can afford to support; personal relationships have been commodified and ordered into basic necessities and luxuries. Global elites have always had free movement and this is likely to remain unchanged by any new migration rules. However, in contrast to this, the message from government seems to be that those on low incomes, who are in transnational relationships, including British citizens, are living beyond their means.