What Cole Porter Didn't Know about International Marriages

By David North on October 21, 2011
Lithuanians and Letts do it
Let's do it, let's fall in love
– Cole Porter

While those wonderful old lyrics suggest the possibility of dreamy international marriages, some of the realities of such arrangements are less than attractive, as the current British discussion of forced marriages reminds us.

By the way, Letts is an archaic term for the indigenous population of Latvia, adjacent to Lithuania, a group more commonly referred to as Latvians. So if our immigration law were to apply in Lithuania, Letts in love with Lithuanian citizens and marrying them would qualify for one of several different kinds of favored immigration treatments.

The problem is that there is a particularly brutal form of marriage fraud that, among other things, takes advantage of those cuddly, pro-marriage clauses in various nations' immigration laws. These are forced marriages, an unattractive element in many Third World societies, and seen as a growing problem in Great Britain. There is also growing evidence of forced marriages of young Americans in immigrant families distorting our own immigration system, the subject of a future blog.

The basic problem is that many societies, notably in the Indian Subcontinent, regard young women as little more than property, to be married off to meet the family's alleged needs in terms of "honor" or economics. If that means shipping off the 15-year-old from England to, say, Pakistan, where she is married against her will to some older and probably wealthier male, well, so be it.

The new groom, who is probably from the family's ancestral village, not only gets the girl, he gets a visa! And the combination of the denial of the young woman's rights and what such a marriage does to the immigration process is what is worrying British authorities.

Now sometimes it is a young man involved in such a forced marriage, but not often, and often there are forced marriages with grim human rights consequences but no immigration ones, but the combination I just described is the subject of the British immigration policy debate. As one can imagine, those Brits that worry about excessive immigration, anyway, have seized on the issue to suggest more restrictive practices.

Bearing in mind that a 21-year-old woman living in the UK is less likely to be forced into such a marriage than, say, a 17-year-old, the British government, then in the hands of the Labour Party, passed a law in 2008 saying that if a Briton wanted to marry an alien from outside the European Union both of them had to be over 21 if they wanted to live together in the UK.

The law lords of the new UK Supreme Court decided that such a law ran contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights and that the rule was the use of a "sledgehammer", according to the Economist of October 15, "to crack a nut of unproved size."

Some under-21-old mixed couples, who apparently genuinely loved each other, fell victim to the new law and appealed successfully. In the old days, before the Convention on Human Rights, British courts had no basis for over-ruling laws passed by Parliament, they could only interpret them, but now there is a new standard.

Meanwhile, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has urged new legislation to make forced marriage a criminal act, though this is defined narrowly to include only those persons violating civil court orders prohibiting such marriages; currently ignoring such an order brings only a nominal civil penalty, rarely invoked.

More broadly, Cameron also called for raising the income threshold for Britons wanting to bring in foreign spouses and a longer probation period for them (like our conditional entrant status for newlywed aliens), positions that impact all immigrant-creating marriages, not just the forced ones.

The Economist, which has an immigration stance similar to that of the Wall Street Journal, was snarky about these restrictionist measures generally:

What the British measures lack in ferocity they make up for in hypocrisy. Ostensibly neutral tests involving income or age are not neutral at all. The top five nationalities granted British visas for marriage and partnership in 2010 were Pakistani, Indian, American, Nepalese and Bangladeshi. American applicants are mostly over 30 and earn more than the British median income. South Asian applicants are typically much younger, their sponsors are poorer, and they are less likely to work than their British peers."

Two thoughts: first, in terms of policy, the general idea of setting parameters on immigration by marriage through limits on age and income seems perfectly reasonable.

Second, in terms of policy-relevant data, the British Home Office obviously is much more forthcoming about the characteristics of subpopulations of its immigrants than is our DHS. Does that agency publish information, by nation of origin, on the age of arriving spouses, or the income levels of their US citizen or LPR mates? Of course not.

While the British Government is struggling with forced marriages it has at least recognized them as an immigration issue, which, as we will see in a future blog, is a huge step beyond the American situation.