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Immigration and marriage: Online discussion points to many shades of gray

A recent column in the New York Times explores the ethical questions behind marriages that take place to help an immigrant's legal status.
A recent column in the New York Times explores the ethical questions behind marriages that take place to help an immigrant's legal status.
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Bestselling author Chuck Klosterman has been in L.A. this week talking up his book about bad guys: “I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined).” But in his role as "The Ethicist" in The New York Times Magazine this week, Klosterman takes the nice-guy approach as he tackles a thorny question, sparking an interesting conversation about immigration, marriage, and where they should and shouldn't meet.

It starts out like this: "Bob," the man with the question, knows a Brazilian woman who works at a chain store. She's in the United States illegally, and works long hours to save money for her children back home. Bob says he's known her for three years and describes her as "kind, decent and helpful to others," and that she would be "an exemplary U.S. citizen." Bob writes:

She has saved money in order to pay someone to marry her; I believe this would be wrong. If I were to marry her, I’d expect nothing. I live alone, have no girlfriend and think this marriage thing would be the morally correct thing to do. What do you think?

Klosterman warns Bob, correctly, that immigration marriage fraud is illegal and could get him and her penalties of up to $250,000, up to five years in jail, and ultimately lead her to be deported. (All true, although actual punishment can be milder, as in the 2011 case of Mexican actress Fernando Romero, who was sentenced to 30 days in jail.)

Then it gets interesting. Klosterman writes:

But let’s say you did do this, against my advice. Would it be ethical?

He doesn't know Bob and he doesn't know the woman, he writes. Bob may be a bad judge of character. The woman may be a con artist. So:

All I can do is take your letter at face value and assume what you’re claiming is accurate. And if it is, my conclusion would be this: If you married this woman, it would be positive for society. It would be transformative for her children, it would eliminate the possibility of her being taken advantage of by someone marrying her for financial gain and it would add a hardworking person to the American populace.

Then the best part:

But something else strikes me about your letter: You seem to respect this woman. You see her as kind, and you see her as good. Have you considered asking her to dinner?

If love blooms authentically, Klosterman concludes, then "any subsequent marriage would not be a sham."

The column has drawn close to a hundred comments, some of which have been fairly thoughtful and not what you might expect. A reader named Lizbeth writes:

Why is this sort of marriage only legitimate if they "fall authentically in love?" I know plenty of Americans who marry because of money, or because of an accidental pregnancy. I have coworkers who have married virtual strangers selected for them by their parents.

Along similar lines, "Bemused" writes:

An interesting question concerns what makes a marriage fraudulent. If someone marries to get a green card is that marriage fraudulent if they live together, commingle finances, pay joint taxes, and raise children? Are marriages that are arranged by families? What if an arranged marriage is to solve an immigration problem? Who is perpetrating the fraud, as the two people being married may not even know that the reason it was arranged?

"Bemused" admits in a different comment that he and his wife married as her visa was about to expire, at which point she asked him "whether this was a real marriage or a phony one, and I replied that we would find out eventually." They have been married 30 years.

"Delee," one of many who objects to the idea, writes:

My thoughts may be colored by the fact that the foreign-born wife of a friend recently cleaned out his assets and went back to the Philippines. According to him, there were no warning signs.

A reader named Richard makes this point (although someone else points out that if Bob "exposes" the woman, it would also expose his complicity):

I think that what is wrong with this "proposal" is that letter writer gains too much power over the Brazilian woman. He could expose her if she didn't have sex with him or send him money.

And "Socanne" admits:

I married a young Mexican immigrant 20 years ago. Through determination and hard work, he has a great job, is a wonderful person, and is supporting his parents and extended family in Mexico. We got divorced many years later, when I found someone I really wanted to marry. I am proud of having done it. I think it is terrible how your life can be impacted simply because you were born on one side of an imaginary line, rather than the other.

It's a long and fascinating discussion on a facet of immigration that gets little attention and, as the piece and the comments suggest, can play out in many shades of gray.

For the record, it remains difficult for unauthorized immigrants who entered the United States without inspection — i.e. by crossing the border illegally — to obtain legal status through marriage. It's easier for those who entered on temporary visas and overstayed.

A 1986 amendment to federal law intended to crack down on fraud stipulates that immigrants who derive their legal status from marriage to a U.S. citizen are deemed conditional immigrants. After two years the conditional status may be removed, so long as they can prove their marriage is valid and that an actual family unit exists.