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Why Brexit is devastating to thousands of married couples like us

It's the start of many a love story. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl tie the knot and move to Paris. Boy's country votes to leave the world's largest political and economic union...

When we got married (South London registry office, tetchy Scottish officiant, borrowed flowers from the cafe down the road), we got a lot of unsolicited advice. Marriage is like a garden, marriage is like a business merger, marriage is like a cup of tea. It turns out when a Brit and a non-Brit make it official, marriage is like that scene at the end of a disaster movie where the heroes are running just ahead of a catastrophic earthquake, holding hands and trying not to get swallowed by rubble.

This shouldn't be as hard as it is. A year ago, returning from a trip to Berlin, Fiona was refused entry at Heathrow after hours in a detention room whose bookshelf contained a copy of Atlas Shrugged. Her student visa had run out, and the officials refused her a visitor's permit — because we were married, they didn't believe she would leave when her six months were up.

We'd already decided that we wouldn't live in Britain; after researching regulations — even checking with a lawyer — it was clear that it wouldn't be possible. But the plan was to stay together for the last three months of Joe's work contract. Instead, we spent the time separated by the Atlantic while we worked out our next steps, talking every day on video chat. The closest we could get to being with each other was a fuzzy image on a phone screen. We carried each other around in our pockets. Robot Wife and Robot Husband.

Even when we try to explain to British people how difficult it is for two relatively privileged straight white married people to deal with UK regulations, they're boggled. Presumably, a country exists to serve and protects its citizens' rights, and even if the UK makes life nigh on impossible for immigrants, surely the wife of a Brit should be able to stay — right? Yeah, no.

If you want to bring a spouse into the country, you have to make a certain amount of money, well above the minimum wage and even well above decent earnings in many parts of the country. If you have kids, you need more money. Even if your spouse has a job offer, their income doesn't count toward the total. For Brits marrying outside the fold, a family life is no longer a human right — it's a privilege of the wealthy.

But we had the European Union, where free movement rules mean any European citizen can live and work in another member state with their family, no matter how much money they make or where that family member was born. So instead of paying thousands of pounds per easily denied visa application every year or two, we flew to Paris and installed ourselves in a small orange flat with a small orange cat.

For Brits marrying outside the fold, a family life is no longer a human right — it's a privilege of the wealthy

The language barrier is tough at times, and the level of paperwork would cause your average accountant to balk, but Paris is a city of immigrants, and slowly, surely, our neighborhood has become our own.

The baker downstairs says "bon courage" and gives Fiona extra cookies if she looks upset. The waiter at the local bistro nods when we pass, thanks to a long-ago conversation about the joys of kitten ownership. We have a favorite Italian épicerie, a favorite Breton crêperie, a favorite sushi takeaway — we share the quartier with other migrants who've also made it home.

And now we might have to leave. And whether that's the fault of idiot protest voters who didn't think the country would really vote for Brexit, or stay-at-home Remainers who couldn't face a rainy walk to the polling station, or ever-popularly scapegoated racist old people, it's a devastating blow. It feels like we're being chased, first out of the UK, and now out of our safe haven, our little orange flat.

"Robot Wife lives in the phone," Joe would say the last time we were forced apart. "The Foreign Office sent her there." But whereas it's easy to pass the buck for decisions onto faceless politicians, being told your predicament is what the people want makes it that much harder.

The EU won't be the only union impacted by a Brexit. Already between 13,600 and 17,800 non-EU family members of UK residents have been refused entry due to the income threshold rule — that's before it would also start applying to those who are EU citizens.

In the era of free European movement, cheap flights and study-abroad programs such as Erasmus, that could be a huge number of families. If Robot Wife returns, it will be because of the wishes of 51.9 percent of the British public. That's an awful lot of people to try not to blame.

Since the results, people keep asking us if we're okay. When Joe walked into his office on Friday morning (on the sum total of 10 minutes sleep) people dished out hugs and pats on the shoulder, not having the words to communicate their sympathies. Everyone felt shocked. No one we knew expected that people could have gotten this angry. Yet when you vilify the working classes while simultaneously encouraging their vilification of others, anger becomes inevitable. It's no surprise people get caught in the crossfire.

Will we be among them? It might be even crueler that we don't know. Britain has committed electoral suicide, voted itself into a position of such little power that there's no indication of what our rights will be once negotiations conclude. That will likely take years — during which we can't concretely start planning for the future.

We might be allowed to maintain Joe's rights as an EU citizen, since we exercised our free movement in another EU country before British membership was nullified, or renegotiations with Brussels might force the UK to accept the same free movement rules it has now. (Shocker: Most surveyed Brits think they should have the right to live and work in the EU while restricting those rights for EU citizens from other countries.)

It could be that Britain will be completely cut off. In that case, could we stay in France? If not, a move to England, or even the US, will likely mean months or potentially years of separation: waiting on visas and paperwork; proving again and again that we're wealthy enough to deserve to live together; knowing that at any time the rules could change or a run-in with the wrong immigration officer at Heathrow could mean Fiona is sent away, or detained, or banned from the country.

That is what it means to be an immigrant in Britain now. It means total uncertainty. It means that any day, the immigrant-hating neighbor waving away their racism with, "I don't mean YOU," could turn instead and say, "Zublin ... is that a Jewish last name, then?"

So set on denying the rights of migrants, the UK seems unperturbed at curtailing its own citizens' rights. Even before a Brexit, Brits weren't allowed to call on EU laws to bring a spouse into the country €— had Joe been French, we could've been happily living in London until this Thursday. Now it can deny whatever rights it chooses; to hell with EU human rights law, so long as foreigners ain't all coming over here, right?

That is what it means to be an immigrant in Britain now. It means total uncertainty.

So much is being wiped out because of the fear and anger that's been whipped up by a government imposing austerity. Austerity, they said, was vital to the country's economic recovery — before calling a referendum that led to the single biggest crash of the pound in history. So long as the Union Jack is proudly waving (and the EU stars are nowhere to be seen), to hell if a few people lose their rights along the way.

No matter how much one may want to disavow it, where you're from is a part of who you are. When you're a couple from two countries with among the strictest immigration regulations in the world, it's already so hard to feel welcome in either "home." When your right to stay together, even in a third country, is considered null and void by nearly 52 percent of people who share your nationality, it makes you wonder whether you will ever feel part of that community again.

The warning signs were there, but we ignored them. Brexit is impossible to ignore. This is what the United Kingdom, as a state, is now. And they may have dragged us down with them.

Joseph Pearson is an editor for cafébabel, a Paris-based multilingual magazine. Fiona Zublin is a correspondent for Ozy. They both live and work (for now) in Paris. Joe is on Twitter @OrdinaryPearson, Fiona @bear_foot.


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