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‘The Home Office put our marriage on hold’ – The ordeal of obtaining a UK spouse visa

James Harris and wife entered a Kafkaesque world when they applied for UK settlement, and the Home Office offices. Pictures: Contributed/Home Office. - Credit: Archant

When JAMES HARRIS married his Chinese wife, applying for UK settlement was troublesome than anticipated.

One of the early acts of Pope Benedict, the previous and not-particularly-missed Pope, was to close Limbo. Limbo – deriving from the Latin limbus, meaning hem or border – was an intermediary station for the expired, mainly invented to answer the question of where the souls of unbaptised infants went after death (for how could a deceased child be sinful?). Pope Benedict expressed his doubts on the matter and so Limbo, a place invented in order to solve a theological problem, was, after mere centuries of non-existence, closed.

But limbo is alive in well in the UK. Thousands of couples live in it, their passports confiscated, their permission to work revoked or limited, their future status together uncertain. I know, because my wife and I recently escaped from it – for now.

What put us in limbo was a bureaucratic measure introduced four years before we had even met.

In July 2012, the Home Office introduced the ‘minimum income requirement’ for those sponsoring a spouse visa. This rule meant that in order for a non-EU national married to a British citizen to live with them in the UK, whether applying from home or abroad, that British spouse had to be earning a minimum of £18,600 per annum. Purely the spouse, mind; the applicant themselves could be earning well over this threshold and their earnings would not be considered.

The British sponsor can meet the threshold in a number of ways – either salaried employment (six months of pay slips), self-employment (your last tax declaration, together with an independent accountant’s assessment) or savings (a minimum of £16,000 is considered). If you have children, the threshold rises by £3,800 for the first child and £2,600 for each one thereafter. Since 2012, around 25% of applicants have been refused visas due to failing to meet this new criteria, which represents more than 60,000 couples.

Four years on, in September 2016, I began my training as a language interpreter. I studied with students from all over the world, and for good measure fell in love with one too. My wife Ke Zuo is Chinese, and from her frequent insults towards me – it’s a Chinese thing – I could tell she liked me.

We married, gloriously, in October 2017, and held our reception at a Hackney Bubble Tea store that our marriage has already outlasted. We were aware of the minimum income requirement before we got married and believed that, with a combination of savings and my self-employment, we could make it over the threshold. Like most people who get married, we’re optimists.

To get the process completed, we booked in for a same-day visa service on Saturday November 4, 2017. We went to Croydon, to the huge Immigration Service Centre there. The cost for the appointment had been considerable: £1,658 for the application alone, plus a £500 surcharge to cover my wife’s usage of the NHS while in the UK, which of course she will also pay for out of general taxation. The visa cost more in total than our wedding did. The NHS costs was the only bit that would be refunded in the event of a refusal.

At Croydon, the security check was the most enjoyable part, as the guards there had clearly been instructed to be friendly. Upstairs, we received a brusque response from the staff there, who had, it seemed, been trained to presume guilt and non-compliance. My wife and I left our documents with the case worker and went to drink coffee. A few hours later we received a phone call summoning us back to talk about a “problem”.

“Sorry,” we were told. “You can’t combine self-employed earnings with savings. It says so clearly in the rules.”

This is, I was later informed in a letter by immigration minister Caroline Nokes, to avoid “the same money being counted twice”. We continued to argue our case before eventually being shown back to the waiting room.

Some hours later, and with every other claimant having been seen, we were called back in for the refusal to be confirmed. In addition, the case worker confiscated my wife’s passport, which would be returned to her at the airport if and when she left the country.

The letter of refusal stated that the Home Office saw no reason why we could not move to China. I had never been to China.

We were also informed that we had the right to appeal the decision, citing Article 8 of the Human Rights Act, the right to a family life. Over the next days, we did indeed lodge an appeal, aware that it could be months, even years, before it might be heard; my wife would have the right to remain in the country until it was. If my wife had needed to leave the country the appeal would have been voided automatically – with her back, we would had to have begun the application process again. And the costs of applying for visas are of course even higher from abroad.

Now we entered perhaps the most absurd passage of our time in limbo. At the refusal appointment, we were informed my wife had the right to work 20 hours a week in salaried employment, extending the terms of her student visa.

She had not, however, obtained a National Insurance Number during her previous year studying – and, in the absence of her passport, the Job Centre refused to issue her one now.

So we found ourselves in a situation where my wife, having been denied a visa due to my earnings, was being refused permission to work: In other words, she was too poor to earn money. What helped us – my advice to all others in similar circumstances – was writing a letter to my local Labour MP, who wrote to the Home Office requesting clarification and in January 2018 were sent a letter confirming my wife’s eligibility for a NIN. She soon began work as a retail assistant in a clothing store.

It was equally impossible, with my wife’s passport absent, and no guarantee of a visa longer term, to rent a property together. Another aspect of the ‘hostile environment’ system is the passport checks prospective landlords are obliged to carry out.

A letter confirming our appeal date would not be sufficient proof of eligibility to rent. But at least to our advantage we had my family’s financial support and my own ability to deal with the bureaucracy in my native language; I dread to think of how people cope without say, the resources to pay a lawyer. Nor to navigate the legal advice given or avoid being let down by those giving it – we consulted two different lawyers, who gave us radically different advice, from one telling us our case was hopeless to another saying we had a more than fighting chance.

On July 13, 2018, nine months after the original decision, our tribunal took place. The judge was pleasant, jocular even, and described us as having put our case “elegantly”. The Home Office for its part didn’t even bother turning up. A month later, the verdict was returned and my wife was granted leave to remain – the Home Office had lost. As it loses, indeed, nearly 50% of all first-tier appeals, and 75% of those subject to Upper Tribunal appeal.

The Home Office had two weeks to contest the judge’s decision and after this deadline passed without issue – I presume they had neither the money 
or resources to further prosecute the matter – my wife’s passport and visa 
were finally returned to her in September 2018, the same day I submitted my dissertation. (I had been studying for my interpreting course throughout this whole ordeal.)

My wife and I now live together in Deptford and there is no doubt the fight we had for each other has strengthened our bond. Happily ever after, then? Not quite. For one, we will have to go through the same rigmarole again in two-and-a-half years time, with the fees increased still further (the aforementioned NHS surcharge alone now stands at £1,000 for the next visa). We will have to prove once again that, for the six months preceding the expiry of my wife’s visa, our combined income was over the £18,600 per annum minimum.

At least this time my wife’s income will at least be counted – and she has wasted no time in finding a job. But of course it restricts our options; we are less free to move around, to take risks in our careers, and the thought of one of us getting sick or her pregnant creates further pressure and anxiety around making sure the Home Office gets its precious six pay-slips.

Furthermore, I feel continuing outrage for those couples still stuck in this limbo. Many of them too will win their appeals, as the Human Rights Act will remain incompatible with the spirit, if not the letter, of the minimum income requirement. Nothing is served by their waiting – nothing is being learned. And so it goes on, an absurd charade of cruelty and extortion designed to satisfy nothing more than the immigration figures on a spreadsheet. Does the Home Office really expect couples to just give up? For that would be to allow the state to determine the outcome of their marriage.

In short: The minimum income requirement should be scrapped and a simple assessment of the couple’s ability to “maintain themselves and any dependents adequately without recourse to public funds”, to quote pre-July 2012 rules, restored. In addition, there should again be the option for the spouse to apply for indefinite leave to remain upon the expiry of the initial visa. And the state should only take the step of separating a couple in the most extreme of cases, such as sex trafficking or a sham marriage. The benefit of the doubt should always be with the couple and their right to a family life. If Pope Benedict could close the Catholic limbo after 800 years, we can get rid of this British one after seven. To do so is a moral emergency for our country.

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