The course of true love never did run smooth

Melanie Griffiths

Migration scholars have traditionally neglected the intimate and family realms, an omission that has been blamed on an enduring assumption that (initial) migrants are single men, moving for labour purposes. The perception is increasingly being challenged, including by researchers at COMPAS and the University of Bristol, who are currently conducting an important joint project on interethnic marriage migration and integration.

Such research demonstrates that mobility does not exist outside of the world of human relationships. People who move have family ties in their countries of origin, and will go on to make new ties. As the work on transnationalism contends, our intimate lives are increasingly likely to span multiple countries and cross formal borders.

This is not, however, a new phenomenon. Indeed, the policing of cross-border love has long been employed in defining the nation. Historically, political concern over Britons marrying non-citizens has tended to be biased on grounds of gender, ethnicity and class. Overt discrimination has largely been erased from the legislation, but bureaucratic hurdles against mixed immigration status relationships still exist and these continue to disproportionately affect certain people over others.

9th July 2012: a date to remember
Court of Appeal
July 9th 2014 marked the two year anniversary of a series of highly significant changes to the management of family migration to the UK. This included altering the rules to restrict the bringing of adult dependent relatives, such as elderly parents, into the country. As a recent report by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants shows, as a result of the changes, only a handful of such cases have succeeded since 2012.

In addition, the minimum income threshold of Britons seeking to bring in a foreign spouse was raised to £18,600 (rising further with any child also seeking entry). As this is a figure that is much higher than the minimum wage and one that must be met solely by the sponsor, many people will never be able to earn enough to meet the requirement, no matter how many hours they work. Recently upheld by the Court of Appeal, the changes were justified as protecting the public purse and facilitating integration but have resulted in hundreds of divided families.

Photo by Melanie Griffiths
Photo by Melanie Griffiths

Article 8 and deportation
Alongside the changes to the entry requirements for family members, there have been developments to the perception and management of relationships of people already in the UK. These include increasing suspicion that foreign national offenders exploit human rights’ provisions (particularly Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which includes the right to respect for one’s private and family life) in order to disrupt government attempts to deport them. Famously, at the 2011 Conservative Party conference, the Home Secretary even claimed that Article 8 rights allowed a South American man to halt his deportation on the basis of his pet cat.

Although this claim was quickly disproved, concerns over this human right have persisted and in 2012 the Home Office instructed Immigration Judges that only in the most exceptional of circumstances should Article 8 claims outweigh the public interest of deportation. More recently, limits to the process of challenging deportation orders was brought in under the Immigration Act 2014. Since 28th July, the Home Secretary can postpone appeal hearings until after a person has already been removed from the UK, unless they have a ‘parental relationship’ with a UK-based child (see FreeMovement blog).

Comfort and convenience?
There has also been increasing suspicion that non-citizens engage in ‘marriages of convenience’ for the purpose of circumventing immigration rules. Although the nature and extent of so called ‘sham marriages’ is extremely uncertain, the Home Affairs Committee stated in their latest report that there is now an industry around the organisation of such marriages. Earlier this year, a report by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration claimed that there are significant levels of abuse by non-EEA nationals applying for UK residence on the basis of a marriage with a European citizen. The Home Office has issued guidance on identifying non-‘genuine’ relationships and the Chief Inspector described a register office representative suspecting couples on the basis of their wearing ‘anoraks and beanie hats’ and texting during the ceremony.

Sham marriage
Arrest of woman believed to be taking part in a marriage of convenience (image from UK Immigration Barristers website)

Although ‘sham marriages’ and the Article 8 rights of foreign national offenders may appear to have little to do with British citizens bringing over elderly relatives or foreign spouses, these are all contemporary aspects of ongoing debates regarding the rights of citizens and non-citizens to make intimate choices in the face of national immigration objectives. They demonstrate changing ideas about ‘genuine’ emotion and ‘meaningful’ parenting, definitions which are inevitably historically and culturally specific and that rest upon certain assumptions regarding the inception and expression of love. The last couple of years in particular have seen an increasing focus on and rapidly changing regulation of the intimate lives of non-citizens, changes that have also had significant impact on British citizens, who have found themselves indirectly but deeply affected by immigration controls.

The need for research
There is an urgent need for greater qualitative research into the lived experiences of affected couples and families. Indeed, the Children’s Commissioner recently launched an investigation into the impact of the new immigration rules on British-resident children.

Iraqi man with his British born baby
Iraqi man with his British born baby. Photo by Melanie Griffiths

In January this year, I started a three year ESRC-funded project at the University of Bristol looking at mixed immigration status families. Focusing on families consisting of a non-citizen man in a relationship with a British or EEA female partner and/or child, the research explores the relationship between family life and living with a precarious immigration status. It questions how the threat of immigration detention and deportation affects people’s experiences and practices of family formation, considering not only the perspective of migrants, but also the indirect impacts of immigration enforcement on British family members. In 2014, this has become a particularly contested arena, one in which the boundaries of belonging and definitions of worthy relationships are being actively and fiercely negotiated.

By: Melanie Griffiths, Research Associate, University of Bristol and COMPAS alumni

To find out more about the research or get involved, email:

Twitter: @MBEGriffiths