From the reaction to the Home Office’s decision to grant visas to the family of Andrea Gada, a five-year-old killed by a car in Eastbourne before Christmas, you’d think a corner had been turned on immigration policy. Gada’s Zimbabwean grandparents and aunt were at first denied visas, ostensibly because of fears that they would remain in the UK. Stephen Lloyd, Eastbourne’s MP, said he would personally guarantee the family’s departure from the country and raised the case in the House of Commons. David Cameron wrote to the Home Office. The case was reviewed and the decision upheld. Finally, after a petition with 100,000 signatures asking that the Gadas be allowed to come was delivered to Downing Street, the decision was overturned last week ‘on compassionate grounds’ (and because of some mysterious ‘new information and assurances’ that the family would return home after the funeral). But it was political expediency that won out.

The tone of the announcement highlights that this is a special case. Yet while the Gada family faced a particularly awful situation, their experience is symptomatic of a larger injustice in the UK immigration system. Andrea Gada’s relatives were initially denied the right to attend her funeral because they could not demonstrate ‘regular income’ – a condition that disqualifies most people in the developing world and many outside it. Income requirements now apply both to temporary visas of the form required by the Gadas and to settlement visas for partners and children of people already resident in the UK, whether British citizens or foreign nationals.

As part of the Tories’ drive to bring down net migration, since 9 July 2012 you’ve needed a minimum annual income of £18,600 to bring your non-EU partner to live with you. The minimum wage amounts to less than £13,000 a year; around half the population of the UK wouldn’t be able to sponsor their partner. If you have a child, the barrier is increased to £22,400. You have to earn this money for a minimum of six months before you can even apply to bring your spouse to the UK. If you don’t meet the income requirements, you can top it up with savings, but you must have held them for at least six months, and the first £16,000 doesn’t count. So if you earn £18,500, you need £16,250 in savings to get a 30-month visa (£100 a year for two and half years is £250). The visa itself costs £601 and you can pay an extra £400 for a premium service or £6000 for a super premium service.

The European Convention on Human Rights enshrines the right to family and private life, but it can be overridden in the ‘interests of national security, public safety or the economic wellbeing of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others’ – in other words, if the state in question wants to. The British government chooses to override the right to family life in order to drive down net immigration. The reason for excluding the poor, supposedly, is to ensure that immigrants – whether they are the Gada family, foreign partners of UK residents or children born to a non-British parent – don’t become a burden on taxpayers. This is nonsense for at least two reasons: a family visa clearly states that the recipient can have no access to public funds; and if you’re worried about drains on the exchequer, what about the £1.8 billion a year spent on immigration control? But even getting into that argument accepts the premise that the right to family life is dependent on the ability to earn money.