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“We are key workers, but not key enough to have our families together,” said Erika Cardoso, who has worked as a carer in the UK for more than 15 years.
“Since I have been in this country, I have been looking after other people – other people’s families. But the only time I need the government to have a bit of compassion for my family, they can’t help me.”
Like thousands of other people in the UK with partners from outside of the EU, Erika has been forced apart from her Brazilian husband Augusto by the government’s minimum income requirement for visas.
Under the rule – which was introduced in 2012 – British citizens and other settled residents must earn at least £18,600-a-year before their partner from outside the EU can live with them in the UK.
The threshold has been slammed as “devastating” by charities such as the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), which estimates that more than 40% of the population in the UK would not meet this criteria.
Research suggests that among this group are many of the key workers who have risked their lives to support the UK during the coronavirus pandemic.
The JCWI estimates that more than 100,000 NHS staff in England do not earn enough to meet this threshold, along with a quarter of the teaching workforce and half of full-time care workers.
Erika is one such key worker who – despite putting her own life on the line to care for people during the Covid-19 outbreak – is desperately struggling to earn what the government demands to reunite her family in the UK.
Like many others in her position, she is campaigning for MPs to abolish the minimum income requirement as the Immigration Bill – which will set out a new post-Brexit immigration system for the UK – passes through parliament.
Like her partner Augusto, Erika is from Brazil – but she has two young sons with her first husband, who is British.
“I would happily go back to Brazil, where I’m from, but I have two other children to think about,” she said. “Their dad is here and he would never let them leave.”
Before the pandemic hit, she worked 60 hours a week as a carer for people with learning disabilities in the hopes of bringing Augusto to the UK – and allowing him to watch their 15-month-old daughter Liz grow up.
But it’s becoming “quite impossible”, Erika said. On Tuesday, she was forced to quit her job – a role that she loves – because her hours had been cut to 27 a week during lockdown in a bid to prevent cross-contamination between the people she cares for.
With her pay at around £9 an hour, the drop in hours would make it impossible for her to earn the £18,600 needed to get her husband a visa. Next month, she will start a new job as a healthcare assistant in a hospital.
“I’m going to have to start working at the hospital during the coronavirus outbreak, putting my life and my children’s lives at risk, just so I can try and get my husband over here,” she said.
Erika and Liz last saw Augusto in February – but coronavirus and the subsequent travel restrictions mean they have no idea when they might be together again.
“It might be next year, it might be the following year,” Erika said. Without the minimum income requirement, they could have been together during the lockdown.
“I wish people could come to my flat and see our life day-to-day,” she said. “They would see the WhatsApp calls with Dad crying on the other side of the world and Liz crying over here.
“She just looks at me – I don’t think she understands. Every time the phone rings she goes: ‘Dada, dada’ because she knows it’s him.
“It’s cruel to her. To me, not so much – I’m an adult, I can take it. But it’s cruel to her.”
Meanwhile, the minimum income rule is also standing in the way of Erika’s dreams of becoming a nurse.
“I’m supposed to start a college course in September so I can go to uni and start my nursing training next year,” she said.
“But how am I supposed to start? How am I going to study and work to make that £18,600 a year? It’s impossible.
“So what do I do? Do I just give up my dream and not become a nurse? Or do I go back to Brazil and leave my two boys here? Or do I give up and leave my daughter without a dad?”
Like Erika, key worker Rebecca Eribal insists that the minimum income requirement must be done away with.
“It should be about the lives behind the numbers,” she said. “Not the numbers behind the lives.”
Rebecca, a teaching assistant for children with special educational needs, is desperate to bring her husband Chuck – who is from the Philippines – to the UK as soon as possible.
The pair, who met in China, married in 2015 and have a five-year-old son named Alex.
While the family originally lived together in China, Rebecca returned to the UK with Alex after he was diagnosed with autism.
“There was no support in China,” she said. “We wanted to be back in the UK where he could be treated equally and get more opportunities so that when he’s older he will be able to get on with life, even if I’m not around.
“And I love England – it’s my home, it’s my country. That’s what I find most challenging about this. It’s as though I’m not allowed here. This is where I have grown up, it’s my home. Why shouldn’t I be able to share that with my husband?”
As the family receives Disability Living Allowance, they are able to apply for an exemption to the minimum income requirement. However, if they are turned down, it could be the end of the road for their dreams of being together.
As Alex’s sole care-giver, it would be “impossible” for Rebecca – who already works 32 hours a week – to increase her hours and up her earnings.
But having Chuck in the UK would mean “everything”.
“It would mean we would actually be able to have a life we can live, rather than just getting by,” she said.
“It would be nice to just be able to feel normal. I see people on the news complaining about being in lockdown with their partners and families. I think: ‘I would love that.’
“I would love it if Chuck was here – to me, being stuck in the house with Chuck seems like heaven. I could think of nothing better at this point.”
Rebecca also worries about Alex growing up with his father on the other side of the world.
“The effect of this rule on children is never mentioned,” she said. “I went to pick him up from school once and he was shocked to see another kid’s dad coming to pick them up from school.
“He’s never had that and it was such a surprise to him. It’s things like that that break your heart – things you never would have thought of before.”
Meanwhile, teachers at Alex’s school have set up a globe in his classroom with a mark on it where Chuck lives so he can see where his father is.
But despite the impact that the government’s rules are having on Rebecca’s family, the same people expect her to return to work next month when schools reopen.
“It’s hurtful,” she said. “I’m being asked to go back to work now and put my life and my son’s life at risk, when nobody gives a crap about us, basically.
“But I will go back to work because it’s my job and I have to earn money.”
Mary Atkinson, a campaign officer at JCWI, said it was “heartbreaking” that Erika and Rebecca – “who care for other people’s families on a daily basis” – are separated from their own families because of how much they earn.
“Sadly, they’re among tens of thousands of people separated from loved ones because of this unfair Home Office policy,” she said. “Through this crisis, we’ve all seen the irreplaceable value of family.
“As the Immigration Bill goes through parliament, MPs will have a chance to scrap this policy and bring families like these together. They must take it.”
Stuart McDonald, a Scottish National Party MP, said the minimum income requirement made the UK’s family visa rules “possibly the most draconian in the world”.
“Almost half of people in the UK wouldn’t qualify to be joined by an overseas partner or child due to these rules, because they don’t earn enough,” he said.
“As a result, thousands of families have been split apart. These really are ‘anti-family’ migration rules and I have no doubt most people think them totally unjust.”
Many of the people impacted by these rules are frontline workers “at the heart of fighting coronavirus”, McDonald added.
“It is appalling that the government is prepared to say – thanks for coming to work for us; but no thanks to bringing your family in to join you.
“We desperately needed to scrap these awful elitist unfair rules anyway – now it is more urgent than ever.”
A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “The minimum income requirement prevents burdens being placed on the taxpayer, but we are keeping immigration requirements under review and will make adjustments if necessary.”
The Home Office has put a “range of measures” in place to support those affected by the coronavirus pandemic, they added.