"Marriage is a proprietary and abolition-worthy institution. I thought that before, during and after my first marriage. I think it now. And yet I will marry again."
When I opened the Priority Mail envelope, its contents made me cry: a hard plastic card, my photo overlaying a background of Lady Liberty’s face. “Permanent Resident.” My green card was in my hands after three years of paperwork, interviews with stern-faced immigration agents, a joyous wedding and a painful divorce. If my experience with US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has taught me one thing, it is this: Do not underestimate the importance of marriage to the state.
Indeed, marriage is the only union that the federal government will recognize, the only status by which committed couples with a non-American partner can stay in the country together. And as the cruelty of the Trump administration’s immigration policies makes clearer by the day: Do not under-estimate the power the state has to rip apart the families it does not want to recognize.
I didn’t have a green card marriage. I did get a marriage green card. The process to get it, as anyone who has gone through it might attest, was a dizzying, panic-inducing bureaucratic obstacle course—a strange lesson in state determinations of love and partnership.
A 2012 New York Daily News article on the officials who interrogate couples applying for green cards wrote, “The green-card gumshoes use old-fashioned sleuthing to ferret out marriages of convenience from cases of true love.” They don’t. They use paperwork and presumptions; it’s the couple that does the work. “True love” as recognized by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services is an uncomfortable act to perform, with little relation to any proof of love we might see as generative or affirming. It involves shared bank accounts (even though most American-citizen married couples I know have separate bank accounts), rent stubs, shared insurance. It’s best if you own property together. Love, according to the state, is an asset merger.
Proof of love, when it comes to immigration, is in this sense specific. But the state adds a pernicious, ephemeral clause: the idea, my lawyer told me, is to show not only that you are (appropriately) married, but that you would have gotten married anyway. It’s an important hypothetical, which technically gives the government insurmountable leverage. Proving what you would have done anyway is impossible, and this is the catch. That possible world—in which borders and governments don’t threaten to tear apart people who love each other —is too far from this one to speculate over. I don’t know what I might do there; and what place marriage would have in such a world is another question entirely.
When amassing evidence of love for the USCIS, a couple essentially aims for a facsimile of doing what people who get married anyway do—which, going by government guidelines, refers to anachronistic, income-stable, middle-class American Dream aspirants. Such people barely exist among all-American couples, let alone green card hopefuls, but the simulation persists between the lines of USCIS guidelines for proof. Rom-com depictions—such as 1990’s Green Card, starring Gérard Depardieu—could lead one to believe that the interviews deal in the important banalities of living and loving together. How does he like his tea? What TV shows do you watch? The government doesn’t care about the color of your toothbrushes.
My ex-husband and I began living together soon after we met in a short-lived Brooklyn squat, one year after I’d moved from London to New York for graduate school. We never signed a lease together. We shared beds, rooms, whole apartments, for months and weeks in Manhattan, Brooklyn and (for a drab nine months) in DC. Paychecks and bank statements went to a spread of friends’ houses and old addresses. We barely spent a night apart in three years, but we lacked the records to prove it. Following our lawyer’s advice, we opened a joint bank account and ensured mail was delivered with both our names. Raised a denizen of the internet, I don’t have a lot of hard-copy photographs. I only own one photo album, and it’s tucked away in a box file on a shelf that I can’t even reach. I’ve rarely looked at the crimson binder of amateur snapshots—my wedding album—compiled for the perusing eyes of a federal agent.
A New York–based, white couple—one male, one female, with the green card applicant from Britain—rarely run the immigration gauntlet. The Trump administration, and the Obama administration before that, make very clear which immigrants will be persecuted, which loves and marriages will not pass muster. Mine was not a story about enduring persecution. Under Trump, even undocumented immigrants applying for green cards through their longtime American spouses are now targeted for deportation, including when the marriage is recognized as legitimate. Fabiano de Oliveira, a Brazilian man, was arrested by ICE as he sat with his wife, the mother of his five-year-old son, in the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services; he was in the process of applying for his legal permanent residency. Under the malignant guidance of White House advisor Stephen Miller, US immigration policy is directed toward ethnic cleansing.
Six years ago, I received my conditional green card without many issues. Two years later, when it was time to apply for permanent resident status, I was in the midst of a divorce, following months of the sort of violent decline that marks many real but unsustainable intimacies. “Fake” relationships for immigration purposes are unlikely to dissolve with violent fights and a partner’s hospitalization for attempted suicide (this is a story for later). Nonetheless, the legitimacy of our original union (the condition for my permanent residency, even after divorce) came under suspicion; I fought to prove it and, eventually, succeeded. My marriage, no shorter than many, was recognized.
Marriage is a proprietary and abolition-worthy institution. I thought that before, during and after my first marriage. I think it now. And yet I will marry again. I will not let a border separate me from my current partner, the man with whom I will spend my life. I’m against marriage, but, dear reader, I’m looking forward to marrying him. I wept at my brother’s wedding and trembled at my first. In the words of magnificent writer and critic Andrea Long Chu: “Perhaps my consciousness needs raising. I muster a shrug. When the airline loses your luggage, you are not making a principled political statement about the tyranny of private property; you just want your goddamn luggage back.”
Marriage maintains a stubborn place in the romantic imaginary, and an immovable one in the state’s terrain of recognition. This underlines the importance of the US Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling to legalize same-sex marriage. My first thought after the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling was of green cards. To deny same-sex partners access to marriage, and thus access to state recognition, is discrimination, pure and simple; Obergefell was a necessary victory and one we must ght to protect against an ever more right-wing Supreme Court bench. Queer revolutionaries have every reason to disdain their historic struggle’s contemporary focus on assimilation to the archaic institution of marriage (and the right to serve in the military). Stonewall—the 1969 uprising that inaugurated the LGBTQ movement in the United States—was a riot. But if a central problem with marriage is the state’s hegemonic control over which people and sets of relationships get recognized, and get to stay, then the problem is with such operations of power, not with individuals’ pursuit of equal rights and liberties within such a system.
I’d heap confetti on any couple who had wanted to legally marry but could only do so after the 2015 Supreme Court ruling. For those who found resonance in then-Justice Anthony Kennedy’s words on the “transcendent purposes of marriage”: let the champagne flow, although I challenge your understanding of the meaning of “transcendental.” Kennedy’s panegyric to marriage as a form of existential identification with another human is of little interest to the immigration agents who decide what counts as “real” marriage and which partners get to live in this country.
In the case of state-recognized marriage, we’re talking about the attainment of recognition from an institution that wields power over us. We can hate this, and work to fight against it, while nonetheless appreciating the exigencies of navigating it now. We cannot underestimate the current necessity of state recognition, and what it feels like to obtain it. It is why I can sit and write, US soil beneath me. It is bright relief, which should be denied no one—relief, of course, predicated, as ever, on fear.
- This is an extract from Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life, by Natasha Lennard. This is part of a series of pieces that we are running this week, looking at love, desire and relationships at the intersection of capitalism, the state, and politics. See them all here.
Natasha Lennard is a Contributing Writer for the Intercept, and her work has appeared regularly in the New York Times, Nation, Esquire, Vice, Salon, and the New Inquiry, among others. She teaches Critical Journalism at the New School for Social Research and is the author of Being Numerous.[book-strip index="1" style="buy"]
Being Numerous shatters the mainstream consensus on politics and personhood, offering in its place a bracing analysis of a perilous world and how we should live in it. Beginning with an interrogation of what it means to fight fascism, Natasha Lennard explores the limits of individual rights, the criminalization of political dissent, the myths of radical sex, and the ghosts in our lives. At once politically committed and philosophically capacious, Being Numerous is a revaluation of the idea that the personal is political, and situates as the central question of our time—How can we live a non-fascist life?