Monday, October 25, 2010

What Defines a Sham Marriage?

A recent story on Fox News concerns a Lebanese man convicted of entering into a sham marriage with an American citizen in order to get permission to stay in the U.S. What made the story newsworthy was that the woman was later an aide to Senator Harry Reid. There is no clear evidence that Reid knew about the case until recently, when the story broke—at which point the aide apparently quit or was fired. I expect that his opponent in the current election will argue either that he knew, that he should have known, or that hiring someone who would do such a thing is evidence of poor judgment. Very likely Reid's people are now combing through the public records in search of some similar misdeed by an employee of the other side, assuming they don't already have evidence of one in stock and ready.

What struck me about the case was not the political element but the question of what, for purposes of immigration, makes a marriage a sham. Married couples usually live together, usually sleep together, usually share income and meals. But none of those is a defining characteristic of marriage. If a couple goes through the usual legal formalities, what more do they have to do in order that their marriage count as real?

It's a serious issue in the context of immigration. Eighty years ago, when marriage was a more serious and divorce a more difficult matter and the reputation for female virginity a significant asset on the marriage market, marrying someone you didn't love or plan to live with was a costly way of getting him or her permission to immigrate, although I expect it occasionally happened. In our current society, those costs are a great deal less. Permitting anyone married to a U.S. citizen to live in the U.S., perhaps to become a citizen, looks like a yawning gap in the barriers that the U.S. puts up against would-be immigrants. But how, given the difficulty of defining what makes a marriage real, can that gap be closed?

Apparently the INS has an answer to that question. Anyone know what it is?


Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

Yes, it is based on the capricious judgment of a low level, poorly trained, little motivated government functionary guided by shaky rules, subject to wide interpretations, based on flaky, culturally parochial evidence.

Russell Hanneken said...

Technically, the INS doesn't exist anymore; it was replaced by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) under the Department of Homeland Security.

I think this document is the closest the USCIS comes to saying what they consider proof that a marriage is legitimate (see page 2, under the heading "Evidence of the Relationship").

As you can see, they provide some examples of what sort of evidence they might be interested in, but they don't say how they evaluate the evidence or what they would consider ironclad proof. One of the items they ask for is "Other documents you consider relevant to establish that your marriage was not entered into in order to evade the U.S. immigration laws," leaving it up to the petitioner to decide what kind of evidence is relevant. I think this suggests the USCIS doesn't have a set of well-defined rules for determining whether a marriage is legitimate.

Anonymous said...

This kind of stuff is asked every time you need to get a dependent visa, including non-immigration ones (e.g. TN-2, F-2).

In our case, we brought a thick album "gallery" of photos from different years/seasons, old email transcripts and things like that.

This is very similar matter to the broad KIND of evidence asked for to prove lack of intent to immigrate for guest visas (typically income, assets, relatives in need of caring, letters from officials explaining one's pressing commitments to return). Especially on the first visit.

Sometimes the truth is harder to believe than a white lie.

Tim Worstall said...

An interesting set of responses to that very question:

jimbino said...

It seems I made this very point a couple of years ago on this blog. To repeat: love, sex, cohabitation, marriage, wedding, breeding, friendship and financial sharing are all independent things, any one or combination of which can occur without any of the others.

There is no such thing as a sham marriage, unless it be one entered into solely for immigration purposes, without love, sex, cohabitation, wedding, breeding, friendship and financial sharing.

Our gummint is an old ass.

evalangui said...


I was reading your story ideas and was stuck by the one about strange reproductive patterns, Ursula K. Leguin has quite a few short-stories with similar themes.

"Unchosen Love" and "Mountain Ways" are both set in a world where marriages are four people partnerships (2 of each sex), where there is a divide between Morning and Evening people (all the children of a Morning mother are Morning people and so you can't never mate with any of your siblings, although your sisters, if you are female, can enter the same marriage as you and sleep with both your male and female Evening partners).

Well, the stories are quite short so I won't spoil you further, I like "Mountain Ways" better, in case you want to try one of them.

In the same collection there's "The Matter of Seggri", which is just brilliant, and also explores female-female partnerships and a extreme gender division of labour (kind of a mirror image of our society with an added number imbalance)