(Update: Corrected to make clear Stop35K was not the group involved in the protest at parliament.)
London (CNSNews.com) – As the British debate over immigration grows, some Americans trying to make a life in the United Kingdom say they are being unfairly targeted by the government.
Under rules effective from Wednesday, many foreign workers from outside the European Union will now have to make at least £35,000 ($49,500) annually after five years of living in the U.K., or face deportation after another year.
Previously, those who held jobs with British companies and who had made at least £20,800 ($29,302) could have applied to stay in Britain permanently after half a decade – and eventually get citizenship if they wanted.
Immigration both from within and without the European Union has become a sensitive political issue here in recent years, and Prime Minister David Cameron has repeatedly declared it his priority to reduce it to lower levels.
Citizens of the 28-member E.U. are allowed to work freely in Britain. Concerns about that situation have led, in part, to Cameron’s planned referendum in June in which citizens will vote whether or not to stay in the union.
In March, the government also announced that further restrictions will apply – with effect from autumn this year – to companies bringing in personnel from outside Europe, with a higher salary requirement and a tax on each worker brought in.
Immigration Minister James Brokenshire said in a statement employers would now have to look to Britain first before recruiting from abroad. In fields where skills were in short supply, they could still draw on foreign workers, however.
“It will prevent companies using foreign workers to undercut wages in this country,” he said. “At the same time, it will ensure that we are still able to attract nurses and other skilled migrants to the U.K.”
Government statistics for the year ending in September 2015 estimated long-term net migration to the United Kingdom at 323,000, which was up by 31,000 from the previous year.
In 2015, 54,383 new visas were granted to non-E.U. workers for skilled work, a category into which many but not all of those affected by the new regulations fall.
On Wednesday, members of a grassroots group opposed to the visa changes burned fake banknotes outside the House of Commons in protest. An online petition, organized by another group, Stop35K, has gathered more than 110,000 names.
Campaigners say that around 40,000 people will be affected by the new rules – American citizens, as well as workers from countries such as Australia and Canada who were granted skilled worker visas – known as Tier 2 visas – after early April 2011.
Shannon Harmon, a charity worker from Illinois, said that being deported would rip her away from the life, friends and family that she had made since moving to London.
“I really don’t have much back in the States,” she said. “My whole community is here.”
Harmon, an organizer with Stop35K, said that she thought the new rules were mainly a political gesture, and that they would in any case not be effective in reducing the number of immigrants.
Alyson Frazier, a 25-year-old classically trained flutist from Virginia who had gone to school in London, said the new rules would make staying in Britain “impossible.”
After going into a massive amount of debt for her training, she said, she could not afford to stay in the United Kingdom.
In recent years, leaders in various art fields as well as companies in a wide range of sectors have argued that clamping down on immigration would deprive Britain of much-needed talent.
Kate O’Neil, a secondary teacher from Milwaukee who now works in the suburbs of London, said that while it was possible she might be able to make the new salary threshold, it would be difficult.
She said part of the problem was that wages in some fields are generally not competitive.
Having earned her Master’s degree in England, she said she had watched many of her fellow students graduate and leave for warmer, and more lucrative, climates.
“They’re taking their degrees and going to places like Dubai where they’re paid much better,” she said.