From the 1st April onwards any non-EU immigrant to the UK who does not otherwise have a connection with the country* must earn at least £35,000 by the end of their fifth year here, or otherwise face deportation. This policy is expected to make a small but largely insignificant contribution to lowering net migration numbers.
The commentariat’s verdict has been unequivocally harsh. This discriminatory law, it has been pointed out, will do next to nothing to keep out the kinds of people that draw the ire of the tabloids: unemployed “scroungers” and low-skilled immigrants who, it is claimed, depress the wages of – and take jobs away from – low-skilled British workers.
Moreover, as one article pointed out, many of the people who risk falling foul of this law are teachers, nurses, STEM researchers – either working in professions that are already desperately short of manpower, or in the industries that Britain expects to live on in the future.
But while it seems fairly obvious that this policy is mistaken and short-sighted, is the British government actually committing an injustice by instituting this arbitrary £35,000 limit?**
If your point of view is that there is a universal right to immigration, as for instance Kieran Oberman argues , then the answer would seem to be yes. Of course human rights are not always absolute, and when one human right clashes with another something’s got to give. But even if people have a right to protect their culture and the distributive justice of their societies, this surely doesn’t apply here. A person earning, say, £30,000 a year is not a drain on the British economy at all, but in fact contributes to the social welfare system through their taxes while claiming nothing in return. And as for transforming British culture these people are far too few, and far too likely to come from similar cultures anyway, that the changes in culture will be minimal.
But others argue strongly that communities do have the right to control their membership. On the one hand, David Miller believes a country has the right to limit the total numbers of immigrants, in an effort to conserve the make-up of their society, and to preserve the decision-making powers of its citizenry . To Michael Blake, on the other, what really matters is that the state is a legal and political project. The state accepts a duty to devote its resources to protecting the rights of the people that live on its territory. When immigrants come into a country they automatically acquire the same protections. The state therefore has a right to choose who to grant those rights to . Of course this right is not universal. Refugees or people fleeing religious or political persecution have a human right to protection that overrides the state’s right to choose its members. But that hardly seems the case for most of the people facing the £35,000 rule. Many come from countries whose own institutions are perfectly capable of protecting their rights, and many are well-educated enough to be reasonably sure of finding good jobs there.
From that point of view it seems that if the UK does have the right to put restrictions on immigration and lower the number of new entrants, the people most likely to fall foul of this rule are the ones that suffer the least from being excluded. This is especially true when we compare them to, say, poor migrants from former British colonies coming here in search of a better life. If it has to be done (admittedly a controversial “if”), better to exclude the people most able to live a fulfilling life in their country of origin.
But there is (at least) one further complication that needs to be addressed. The figure of £35,000 seems to be plucked out of thin air. It certainly bears no resemblance to other indicators of financial independence. It is well above the median annual salary of £27,200, and even further above the threshold for claiming working tax credits (£13,100 for a single person with no children). Does the government violate people’s rights by making their future in Britain depend on an arbitrary number?
A lot in society is arbitrary. Whenever a distinction has to be made between two groups of people, a line has to be drawn. For instance, the voting age has been set to 18 years because democratic decisions ought to be made by adults fully capable of democratic deliberation. But there is no good reason why someone aged 17 years, 11 months and 29 days on election day should be less qualified than someone aged 18 years and 1 day. Yet there it is. So to defend the limit it would be enough to prove that setting a cut-off point is permissible. The precise figure of £35,000 does not need to be justified from a moral point of view.
But a key difference, of course, is that we generally agree that adulthood starts at around 18 years, so while the exact cut-off point is somewhat arbitrary it’s in the right ballpark. That same argument may have been the case for the old threshold of £22,800, but not so for the new one. Voting is an intrinsic right that comes with membership in a society. But if you agree with Miller or Blake that there is no intrinsic right to membership to begin with, there is no natural ballpark figure to be aiming at. Provided those with a genuine human right to escape to a better life are allowed in, the rules governing migration in general are left to the discretion of governments.
To conclude, the answer to the question hinges on whether you think closed borders of any kind are unjust. Perhaps the right to immigrate is universal, and there is a duty to let everyone in. But if you agree with the majority of people and all major British political parties that some limits on immigration ought to be in place, the conclusion seems clear to me that while this law is indeed remarkably stupid and short-sighted, it is not unjust. And it is within the moral right of the government to implement it. Many of the people affected by the rule are precisely the kinds of people we should encourage to come and contribute to British society. They are an asset to the UK, and the government ought to let them stay. But that cannot by itself grant them a human right to be here; indeed, it seems more likely that people who are an economic liability, at least in the short term, have a greater claim to that right, as that is probably much better correlated with needing the protection of the British state to begin with.
* There is, of course, a very real chance that people who fall foul of the £35,000 rule end up having a legitimate claim to a close connection to the UK turned down. That clearly seems to constitute a breach of their rights. But it is by not having their legitimate connection recognised that their rights are most obviously breached.
** I should clarify that I am not here talking about the specific ways the law is being implemented – whether the right to due process of those affected is being respected. Those may constitute an injustice without the underlying principle behind the law doing so.
 Oberman, Kieran (2016), “Immigration as a Human Right”, in Fine, Sarah and Ypi, Lea (eds), Migration In Political Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 32-56.
 Miller, David (2016), “Is There a Human Right to Immigrate?”, in Fine, Sarah and Ypi, Lea (eds), Migration in Political Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 11-31.
 Blake, Michael (2013), “Immigration, Jurisdiction, and Exclusion”, Philosophy & Public Affairs, 41/2, 103-130.