Sunday, February 15, 2015


A student of mine, a young man of 23, got married in November. This would be unusual under any circumstances--British undergraduates are not known for their nuptials in any case, but it's 2015--but what makes this all the more remarkable is that his wife is Canadian. 

Of course they got married so they could stay in the same country. They are in love and didn't want to lose each other. As someone who spent four years on Skype, shunning friends and family alike every evening so I could talk to my Boy before he fell asleep, I can appreciate the sentiments that led to their decision. The idea of being forced apart by factors beyond your control is terrifying, and long distance is agony--not just for the intimate relationship, but for every other relationship with which it interferes. It may seem impulsive to marry someone you haven't been with for more than a few years, but on the other hand it is downright stupid to abandon a relationship with someone you genuinely care about because of paperwork. 

Alas, paperwork, as soulless and feeble as it may appear, can mean the difference between marital bliss and crushing emptiness. A month after their wedding they applied for the FLR(M) visa, the one I hold, and this Friday they were rejected. My student and his spouse appeared in my office at ten in the morning, red-eyed and panicked, unable to comprehend what had happened and terrified of what this means for their future. They are nice young people, both native English-speakers, from good families and with good prospects. They are young but she's a successful au pair and he's halfway through his BA. Neither are criminals, the validity of their marriage is not in question, their supporting documents were in order and they did everything by the books. What happened, then?

They aren't wealthy.

I learned that the young lady in question is here on a Youth Mobility Scheme visa, which is designed to facilitate short-term jobs for young people from Nice Countries (except America) who want to enjoy some time in the UK. It gives you two years' entry clearance, at the end of which you are expected to go home more worldly and mature from your British experience. ("Youth Mobility: Sophisticating the Savages, One Au Pair at a Time"). The visa, like every visa designed for young people, cannot be extended or transferred into any other merit-based category, and is specifically designed to compel the youth to leave or (let's be honest) marry a citizen. Love is an acknowledged side effect of youth, and by extension, youth mobility.

The Au Pair system, as I've come to learn, is a home-stay cultural exchange opportunity based on interactions with children. An au pair is treated like a favourite niece--she is given an allowance, but she is fed and sheltered by her host family. She then shares her time between taking little Tarquin and Isabella to the park and going clubbing taking language classes. Au pairing is not a career--indeed, it's really not even a job--it's more of an apprenticeship. (Dear Reader, I'm sure you already knew this. Before I looked this up I'd assumed 'au pair' meant 'foreign nanny'.) Au pairs go into their placements knowing they will not make money--indeed, if they come out at the end of two years with more cash than when they started, it suggests they've been...up to something. 

So when my student's wife applied for her marriage visa she declared, truthfully, that she was given pocket money amounting to £90 a week, and that her other expenses were covered by her host family. She has been offered £22,000 a year as a full-time nanny by another family, contingent upon her successful transition into a suitable visa category. My student, of course, is a student, with all of the associated loans and costs. 

Their rejection letter included a reference to her pocket money and the amount in her bank account, which fell well below the £18,600 minimum. Because she hasn't already started her well-paid job, despite the fact that her application included a bona fide copy of her offer letter and she has applied from within the UK, it was not considered relevant. The rejection also included a note to the effect that since she's from a politically stable country she doesn't qualify for asylum, and since she's been in the UK less than 5 years she probably still knows people in Canada and can re-integrate fairly easily. Furthermore, they say, it is not in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights article 8 (right to family life, right to live with your family) because it's not an insurmountable obstacle to the pursuit of their family life, because if he wants, my student could just drop everything and move to Canada to join her. 

My student is halfway through a 3 year degree programme. It would be a huge imposition to make him abandon that to leave the country to join his wife, and it would have a grave impact on his career prospects. Plus his student debt would not be forgiven, and would all be for nowt. If she is sent back to Canada they will be compelled to spend at least the next year and a half separated, or until my student can find a well-paid full time job. My student is a prop maker for theatre--for him to find a full-time job that pays more than £18K a year straight out of undergrad is not only highly unlikely, but for his career path it is also typically undesirable. Props students often want to freelance for a few years after they finish school, to figure out which field or medium they are truly passionate about. 

The big point that they seem to be glossing over, though, is the fact that their matrimonial unity in Canada is entirely dependant on Canada accepting my student. The border agency has conveniently left that bit out--just saying 'well you could just go there, you know' doesn't actually mean he can just go there, you know? They've blindly lobbed the ball toward Canada's fence but not actually into their court.

My student is a British citizen. Not just born and raised, but his family has been British since long before Ireland split in two. For his own state to tell him "we don't want your wife, so why don't you just leave?" is a callous disregard for his rights and the state's responsibilities to the maintenance of those rights. I don't understand how the current laws were passed, and I certainly don't understand how the people who passed them sleep at night. 

In the process of writing this I've come across numerous state-drafted documents that, over the course of hundreds of pages, fail utterly to convince me that they're not violating the EU Convention with these new immigration laws, and dozens of newspaper and legal journal articles that agree with me. Indeed, I haven't seen anything published by anyone aside from the state that agrees this is fair or reasonable. You can't restrict basic human rights to the wealthy, or even the middle class. This campaign of policy rewrites and imposition of insurmountable and unnecessary obstacles to the cohesion of working families is not just unethical, it's illegal.

The Daily Mail readers and trolls who slithered over to the Guardian comments pages to support the state in their pursuit to bar poor people from the country by any means possible as usual base their arguments in xenophobia and presumption, not in a basic understanding of their own rights as citizens. No, Mrs. Student does not have the inherent right to move to the UK. But Mr. Student does have the right to live here, and he has the right to have his wife with him. No, the state is not required to allow her to claim benefits or offer her anything at all. But it makes no sense to prevent her from entering the country on the basis of perceived risk the taxpayer if she is legally barred from claiming public funds. Yes, the state has declared that they want to reduce immigration in real terms. But that does not give them the right to dissolve and scatter the legitimate families of legitimate British citizens to achieve that aim.