Saturday, April 04, 2009

Immigration laws apply to famous people too

I wasn't planning to weigh in on this, since I typically stay out of blogosphere debacles. But this issue hit close to home, and I already managed to get involved in a low-grade flame war on Facebook. So I thought I might as well make it a blog post.

Bruce Sterling and his Serbian wife Jasmina Tesanovic have found themselves in trouble with US immigration. As Sterling says in his blog on, US immigration officials don't believe his marriage is valid, as they can't find any "paper trail" for it. "We have no joint bank account, no insurance accounts and no joint children," says Sterling. "The authorities therefore suspect that our marriage is a phony "Green Card marriage," and they would like to have Jasmina deported from the USA."

That's a bad situation to be in, as I can testify from my first-hand acquaintance with US immigration policies and procedures. Before I got my legal permanent residence (a.k.a green card) through a marriage to a US citizen, I spent 5 years unsuccessfully trying to get it through my employer, and failed because my company didn't comply with arcane immigration laws. So I know what it's like to battle immigration authorities.

Immigration through marriage: not that complicated

Compared to that, immigration requirements for obtaining a green card through marriage are quite easy to meet (as long as the marriage really is genuine), even though it can be tedious and time consuming to gather all the documentation. Basically, the couple needs to present evidence that their marriage is valid. This is to prevent immigration fraud via fake marriages. The evidence is simple and commonplace: joint bank accounts; rent or mortgage statements showing that both people live at the same address; joint health insurance. The kind of stuff that happens naturally to couples that are legitimately married. Apparently, Bruce and Jasmina don't have any of that.

The thing is, it's hard to claim you didn't know that such evidence will be required to prove validity of your marriage. When you apply for legal permanent residence, the forms state what kind of supporting evidence you need to submit. You can't possibly miss it, unless you willfully disregard it. I don't know how Bruce and Jasmina managed to stay ignorant of this requirement.

There is an interesting aspect to their predicament, though. As Sterling says, the reason they don't have that much evidence is that "we're an Internet couple. "By our nature, we just don't generate much paper. We use electronic banking. Bruce uses American banks, while Jasmina uses Serbian banks. [...] No sane European would ever want American health insurance. And so forth." Valid points. The evidence readily recognized by US immigration officials is the kind that's generated by an average working bee, such as myself. Typical married couples do have joint bank accounts, rent / mortgage statements and health insurance. But I imagine if you are a globe-trotting freelancing visionary / futurist / political activist, you may not be tied to something so mundane. And yet, since Bruce and Jasmina have a residence in the US, it certainly should have been possible to list that residence in both of their names. As to Bruce's question "why would anyone want to make his or her alien spouse use an American or Serbian bank?" -- there are good reasons for the foreign spouse to do it on their own will (who's saying anything about "making"?) When you are withdrawing money from a local bank's ATM, you don't have to pay a fee, whereas if you use this ATM to withdraw money from another bank, there is a fee. If you withdraw often (and don't tell me that an "internet couple" never needs cash! :-)), those fees can add up. And even if you do all your banking transactions over the internet, you can still download and print paper statements. So this really isn't about electronic vs. paper problem. It's just that the couple has not bothered to establish enough evidence of a joint life -- even though they should have known better.

As I said, I do sympathize with them, and I hope the solution they are seeking -- to have lots of people sign affidavits that they've met Bruce and Jasmina and recognized them as a genuine couple -- will be sufficient to USCIS. And it's a good thing that people on social networks have started circulating a petition to help Bruce and Jasmina. However... What really got my goat is that it's being phrased as a plea to "defend" Bruce and Jasmina from the claws of Homeland Security. That's victim language. The only victimization here was done by the couple to themselves, through their own negligence. Some people are going so far as to claim it's a witch hunt against Jasmina because of her political activism. Anyone who's dealt with US immigration laws like I have, will recognize that as absurd.

What it's really like to be destroyed by US immigration machine

If you want to know what it's really like to be victimized by US immigration authorities, you need to go no further than to read the archives of a Yahoo group immigration_info. Admittedly, you may have to read several years of archives to get to the truly hair-raising stories; the most egregious cases of victimization are not posted very often on internet message boards. But when you do come across them, they'll make your blood boil. There's a story of a woman who was a child when her parents brought her illegally into the US; they eventually applied and got green cards for themselves, but out of ignorance or negligence they didn't apply for her green card. Now in her 30s, she is facing deportation from the only country she's ever known. And there's nothing she could have ever done about it: she had no say in her parents' decision to come into US illegally, or in their negligence to apply for her green card. There's also a refugee from Myanmar who applied for political asylum in the US, and then risked his life for a brief visit back to Myanmar to say goodbye to his dying mother. Now US authorities are denying his asylum petition, because, according to their logic, "if you could go back to your country to visit, then your life is really not under threat"!

I sincerely hope thing will work out for Bruce and Jasmina. Given the internet uproar their plea will generate, I can't imagine it not working out... unlike for those above-mentioned poor chumps who got in trouble through no fault of their own, and who don't have internet groundswell behind them.

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Laszlo said...

Good writeup although I don't really get your point. Is this a tirade that you would rather send to Bruce in email?

Immigration laws in the US are exclusionary. If Bruce Sterling doesn't get that, I think his basic epistemological skills may be questionable.

Elze said...

No, of course I wouldn't send something like this to Bruce in an email. That would be unkind and pointless. I simply decided to comment on this issue because (1) Bruce made it public a couple of weeks ago, when he put out an appeal to the vast internet masses to write affidavits on his and his wife's behalf , testifying that their marriage is valid; (2) this issue is close to my heart, having been through spousal immigration process myself, and (3) many of his supporters interpreted it as if USCIS intent to deport Jasmina was political persecution; as I said in my post, I don't believe it's anything of the sort. These same people who are crying out in Bruce's support are typically far less sympathetic of ordinary immigrants who break the law. The common view is "if you chose to break the law, we don't need you in this country". But what's good for the goose must be good for the gander.

Given all this, I could not resist throwing a dissenting voice into the melee.