Immigration rules are breaking up British families and forcing children to live without a parent, the most senior Catholic in England and Wales has said.
In a rare and extraordinary political intervention, Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols said rules only allowing in non-EU spouses if the UK citizen earns over £18,600 were "deeply unsavoury" and showed the government was betraying its stated commitment to the institution of marriage.
"These new immigration rules are ruthlessly applied against British citizens," he wrote in the Guardian.
"There is something deeply unsavoury about the inhumanity with which immigration targets are being pursued. The administrative processes, as I heard myself, strip applicants of their basic dignity.
"Support for family life is a cornerstone of British society and, in fact, of the Catholic tradition.
"This victimisation of a group of British citizens is an indication of how far we have moved from these principles and values."
Up to 17,800 families are understood to be broken up every year by the new immigration rules, which were brought into force in July 2012.
Hundreds of children are growing up without at least one of their parents due to the new rules.
One family who spoke to Politics.co.uk said the children had started to call their mother 'computer mummy' because they only saw her using video chat service Skype.
Couples often split so one of them can find work which satisfies the income threshold and collect enough payslips to make a new application.
Others pursue a legal loophole by living together as a couple in another European city and then coming to the UK as EU citizens.
Ironically, EU citizens coming to the UK are permitted to live together whatever their salary because they enjoy greater legal protections.
"Other EU citizens are free to come and live in the UK with spouses from outside the EU. And yet British citizens do not enjoy the same rights," Nichols said.
"The feeling of being victimised by one's own government is a bitter pill to swallow.
The £18,600 income benchmark puts it out the reach of anyone on minimum wage. Analysis suggests up to 47% of the British working population does not satisfy the criteria.
"Anyone who is truly concerned for the family as the building block of society, and is realistic about the mobility of British people today, must see both the folly of this policy and how it is an affront to the status of British citizenship," Nichols added.
The Archbishop of Westminster went on to make a broader attack on the treatment of immigrants in the British media, warning that "there is a moral responsibility on all those in public life, including the media, to avoid stirring up irrational fears that feed prejudice".
He added: "The fostering of mistrust and dislike of those who come to this country is the promotion of unjust discrimination, and unworthy of any true political leadership."
The intervention comes amid a renewed focus on the plight of immigrants and refugees from the Catholic Church.
Pope Francis' first trip was to the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, where hundreds of thousands of people fleeing north Africa risk their lives to get to Europe.