On Reporting Green-Card Marriages

The latest edition of  “The Ethicist,” the The New York Times moral advice column (published last Wednesday), takes as its topic sham green-card marriages. The advice seeker asks current Times ethicist, Kwame Anthony Appiah (NYU), whether she should report that at a wedding of an acquaintance, the bride explained to her that the marriage “was a fraud, one she’d entered into only in order to gain U.S. citizenship.”

Appiah says that “this country’s economic and cultural strength is in part a result of our openness to immigration… but it is the nature of the nation-state arrangement that states have a right to regulate who crosses their borders.” He adds:

If someone abuses it by the sort of fraud you have described, they are not only breaking the law, they are jumping a queue that millions of other people have formed by applying properly and then waiting their turn.

Appiah concludes that while one is “not obligated” to report the fraud, “it would be a good thing” to do so.

I’ve seen some discussion of the column online, and a couple of Daily Nous readers emailed me about it, asking for a discussion of it. There are questions about what makes a marriage real or fraudulent. There are questions about the immigration process, some of which are just factual (e.g., what affect does one’s obtaining a spousal green card have on other applicants for spousal green cards, or on applicants for green cards more generally? What’s the punishment for getting caught engaging in such fraud? One reader says “someone caught in a ‘fake’ marriage is potentially open to being sent to prison for 5 years and/or a $250,000 fine, at least according to this source.”). And there are questions about ideal and non-ideal theory, e.g.,: How does the unfairness of a system affect the moral assessment of individual moves of those who operate within it?

I’m inclined to think that Appiah is correct in opposing the kind of fraud described in the letter. Written before this weekend’s immigration law chaos, one operative and reasonable assumption was probably that there are significant benefits to rule of law and that changes to immigration policy should be sought through proper political and legal channels or perhaps through civil disobedience—not through attempts to get away with fraud. (I say this as someone who is generally in favor of very permissive immigration policies). The punishment strikes me as excessive, though, and that would temper my enthusiasm for encouraging private individuals to report such attempts.

When immigration law itself is made by executive order without respect for the rule of law, in the absence of consultation with the relevant experts, and with the apparent intention to reinforce or cater to discriminatory attitudes—as we saw with Trump this past weekend—it might seem that individuals’ obligations to obey the law weaken. That judgment, though, depends on us having rather dim prospects for more straightforwardly permissible forms of resistance and reform of the law and the way in which it is made. Are we at that point yet? The modest successes that the people and the judiciary have had over the past couple of days in response to Trump’s immigration order suggest that it is too early to abandon the hope we need in order to believe in the resilience of the rule of law.

UPDATE: As Bruno Leipold notes in the comments, Chris Bertram (Bristol) comments on Appiah’s advice here.

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