Almost halfway in the journey towards citizenship, Kate Ng finds that potential changes to immigration law could mean there is no end in sight
Every time I tell a British person who is not married to a foreigner my five-year plan to UK citizenship, the reaction is always the same: wide-eyed looks of shock, shaking heads, and the question: “I thought you’d automatically get citizenship once you marry a Brit?”
That hasn’t been the case since 1981, when the British Nationality Act was introduced and marriage was no longer an automatic route. Since then, the journey towards gaining permanent residence and citizenship in the UK has only become harder and more expensive; and now, as MPs have voted to pass the Nationality and Borders Bill, it feels like I’m heading towards a cliff.
If it passes through the House of Lords, the controversial bill will allow the UK government to strip people who secured their citizenship through immigration of their status with zero notice, leaving them stateless. It does not matter if they have dual citizenship or not, as long as the government thinks they are eligible for citizenship elsewhere.
It means that, in around three years’ time (five years after securing my first spouse visa, which has to be renewed after 2.5 years), when I finally pass that last hurdle and get British citizenship, it can be snatched away from me at any moment, without warning. It wouldn’t matter if I’ve been a citizen for half a century or for 10 months – either way, it would be devastating.
It especially stings to think of the thousands of pounds I have already, and will eventually, part with just to try and make this country my permanent home. The cost of migrating to the UK is obscene: as of 2021, it costs £1,523 to apply for a spouse visa from outside the UK. This is reduced to £1,033 if you are applying within the UK, which you can only do if you have already secured some other legal way of living here.
But that’s not all. On top of that, there is the Immigration Health Surcharge, also known as the NHS surcharge, which is a mandatory payment foreigners must make to get access to the NHS. This does not apply to short-term visitors, like tourists, but comes at a cost of £624 per year for all other visa and immigration applications.
It doesn’t even stop there; more costs are incurred if applicants have children or have to take an English Language Test or a Life Skills test, or a tuberculosis test to gain entry, or pay for document translation and printing. You can pay to get a quicker decision on your visa application if you pony up another £573 – this rises to £800 if you are within the UK and want a decision within one working day. If the Home Office refuses an application, you won’t get a single penny back even if it was a mistake on their part.
The fact that these costs rise every couple of years is a further kick in the teeth. In 2018, the health surcharge was £200 a year. It then doubled in 2019, and rose further to the current cost in October 2020. According to Free Movement, that means the total cost of a spouse application spiked by 69 per cent, from £1,533 in 2018 to £2,593 in 2020.
This means that when I reapply for my spouse visa next year, which I have to do in order to be eligible for citizenship within five years of my first visa, I may have to pay even more than the aforementioned sum. And who knows what the cost will be by the time 2023 arrives? They could well be astronomical; to the British government, I am nothing but a cash cow.
So the idea that home secretary Priti Patel could just take all that away one day feels particularly vicious. All the years of worrying about money, all the time spent carefully collecting evidence of my relationship and baring it all to the Home Office, trying to prove that I deserve to be here; these were things I thought I could leave behind once I crossed the finish line to citizenship. But it now feels like when I get to the finish line, instead of celebrating, I’ll be forever on edge.
As the UK’s hostile environment becomes ever worse, it is, predictably, non-white ethnic minorities who will experience the worst effects. According to the New Statesman’s analysis of data from the Office for National Statistics, up to six million people could be at risk of being deprived of their citizen status without warning.
The publication found that two in every five people from non-white ethnic minority groups (41 per cent) are likely to be eligible for deprivation of citizenship, compared to one in 20 people categorised as white (five per cent). The majority of those who would be eligible are people who were born in India, followed by Pakistan, two of the largest migrant groups in the UK.
The Home Office argues that the government has had powers to remove British citizenship for more than a century, and it is “always a last resort against the most dangerous people to protect our national security and public safety”. But nobody has forgotten the dreadful treatment of the Windrush generation.
A spokesperson said that the clause is “simply about the process of notification” and recognises that it may not be possible to do in “exceptional circumstances, such as when someone is in a war zone, or informing them would reveal sensitive intelligence sources”.
But the very notion of removing a person’s citizen status without being required to notify them sets a dangerous precedent. I came here believing that if I obeyed all the rules, paid all the money, was the very definition of a “good immigrant”, I would eventually be safe. Now I’m not so sure.