Mothers and Moneymakers: How Gender Norms Shape U.S. Marriage Migration Politics

By Gina M. Longo

Sarasusan, a white divorcee and single mother of two from Virginia, and Hicham, an Arab factory worker living in the desert town of Tan-Tan, Morocco met on MySpace in December 2009, and immediately hit it off.  In June of 2010, Sarasusan traveled to Morocco to meet Hicham for the first time.  Over the course of three years, Hicham traveled to internet cafés daily to talk to his future wife and stepdaughters. In January 2013, she finally could afford to bring her daughters to Morocco to meet Hicham in person. Upon her return to the U.S., she filed for a K-1 (fiancé) visa petition with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

While they began dreaming of the day they could marry, they didn’t realize their nightmare had already begun. After a year and a half, the first petition and subsequent appeal were denied.  At his interview, the U.S. consulate officer in Morocco told Hicham that their relationship appeared fraudulent or strictly for immigration papers. He was given no further explanation.  In July 2015, Sarasusan married Hicham in Morocco, but her daughters, due to high airfare costs were unable to come. Upon returning home, Sarasusan saved money to start a new immigration petition for her husband. Sarasusan began seeking advice from other petitioners online, and crafted her evidence package based on much of this advice.  It was not until September 2016 that Sarasusan and her daughters were able to embrace Hicham on U.S. soil.

Foreign nationals who marry U.S. citizens have an expedited track to naturalization, so immigration officials worry that some will use fake marriages to obtain a green-card.  Early U.S. immigration and citizenship policies addressed these concern by blocking white women in racially mixed relationships. Native-born women citizens lost their citizenship status if they married foreign nationals, and could not initiate immigration petitions for foreign-born husbands. Consequently, this enabled a gendered and racialized citizenship model that defined white, native-born men as full citizens and women as second-class citizens.

Today, these policies have been replaced with preferential processing for immigrants with U.S. family ties.  So, U.S. immigration officials require that “green card” petitioning couples demonstrate that their relationships are “valid and subsisting” (i.e., for love) and not fraudulent (i.e., for immigration papers). Immigration officials warn U.S. citizens in such relationships to beware of red flags, or details about a couple’s relationship that raise suspicions of marriage fraud, such as large age differences, short courtships, or requests for money.  These requirements and red-flag warnings are supposedly gender- and racially-neutral, but migration itself is not.  Thus, like Sarasusan, men and women petitioners with foreign partners from different world regions often seek advice from experts and other petitioners about how to overcome potential obstacles to their petitions’ success.

In my Gender & Society article, “Keeping it in ‘the Family’: How Gender Norms Shape U.S. Marriage Migration Politics,” I used an online ethnography and a text analysis of conversation threads on a large online immigration forum where U.S. petitioners exchange such advice.  I compared two of the sites’ sub-forums, the Middle East/North African forum (MENA), where members are predominately white U.S. women coupled with MENA-region men; and the Belarus/Russia/Ukraine forum (BRU), where white U.S. men pair with BRU-region women, and analyzed how forum-members define red-flag warnings and the requirements for a “valid and subsisting relationship” to label a relationship “real” or “fraudulent.”  These conversations reveal members’ own experiences with immigration officials and their understanding of genuine marriages for immigration purposes.

I found that petitioners connect generic relationship criteria and warnings in U.S. immigration policy with racialized and classed gender ideologies and expectations surrounding an idealized image of the white, Middle-class, “American family.” Women should be mothers and caretakers, and men should be breadwinners.  Both men and women petitioners use sexual and gendered double standards surrounding women’s sexual agency, fertility, and desirability to determine which red flags will concern immigration officials and for whom.  Women’s sexuality and gender differentially structure the process of negotiating red flags for men and women petitioners, and the right to confer citizenship onto a foreign partner. This provides privileges to men citizens, allowing them to pursue of foreign women abroad and to bestow their citizenship status more freely upon their chosen mates. However, women citizens with the same intentions are considered desperate fools, incapable of controlling their emotions or the border. Consequently, citizen-women’s relationships appear more suspect and in need of policing.

Longo

Why is this important? Although media coverage on U.S. immigration often centers on issues surrounding DREAMRs, refugees, and undocumented people, approximately 50 percent of the one million-plus immigrant visas issued in 2015 (i.e. “green-cards”) were for U.S. citizens’ immigrant spouses/fiancés (Department of Homeland Security 2015). These rates have remained consistent since 1908 (Lee 2013), making these beneficiaries the largest groups of visa-holders with a pathway to citizenship. These immigration cases largely shape the nation and conceptions of citizenship.  Through this online forum, members become unofficial border police before cases ever reach an immigration officer.  Although, discriminatory U.S. immigration and citizenship laws of old have been abolished, I find that when citizens use ideological understandings about gender and family themselves to give each other petitioning advice, explicitly discriminatory policies are not necessary to uphold and legitimize racialized and gendered citizenship hierarchies.  My findings highlight how conversational negotiations in virtual spaces are consequential for re-imagining intersectionally gendered citizenship and the policing of national identities and borders.

For an even further in-depth look at this research please also listen to the recent SAGE podcast on this article.

Gina Marie Longo is a PhD Candidate of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She specializes in the sociology of gender, race and ethnicity, immigration, and digital sociology.  Her current research focuses on how the U.S. spousal reunification system (re)constructs and polices citizenship and nation.

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