Sunday, April 5, 2009

Bruce Sterling accused of sham marriage

I've just read on Bruce Sterling's blog that he and his Serbian wife have been accused of a "green card" marriage by the US immigration authorities. They basically have a couple of weeks to prove to the authorities satisfaction that their marriage is not a sham. If they cannot do so then Jasmina Sterling (nee Tesanovic) will be deported.

This is wrong on many levels. I've never met them, so I can't comment myself on the reality of their marriage, except to note that Bruce Sterling is a good looking wealthy intelligent over-achieving man, so I can't see that he needs to hire himself out as a husband-of-convenience, nor does it seem likely that he needed to offer a green card just to get a woman into his bed.

(Aside: I also think it truly ironic that an organisation that takes 6 months to decide on a 3-month visitor's visa allows only a couple of weeks for them to put together evidence that their marriage is real).

But US Immigration don't think like that. It seems from what Sterling wrote that they check up on marriages between Americans and non-citizens, and look for the paper trail that would be generated by people living together: joint ownership of homes, bank accounts and the like. And because of their somewhat nomadic existence it seems that Bruce and Jasmina don't have that paper trail.

Students of organisational behaviour will recognise an anti-pattern here, although I don't know if its ever been written down. It looks like this:

Name: Chasing Reality

Context: Enforcement of rules that mandate an ill-defined threshold of performance.

Forces: People attempt to meet the performance threshold with minimum effort. The enforcing authority becomes concerned that their effectiveness is being eroded.

Supposed solution: The enforcing authority requires increasingly stringent evidence of performance. The rules about what is "sufficient" may also be kept secret or poorly defined to prevent people from engineering their evidence to follow the requirements.

Resulting context: the enforcing authority becomes increasingly unable to judge real performance, and instead becomes obsessed with the production of evidence. Success depends more on finding out what the real criteria are and meeting them than on actually performing the original task.

I have seen this pattern before, although never with such horrendous consequences. Some years ago a senior manager told me that he had a set of criteria for any application to spend money, but he would not tell anyone what they were for fear that all the applications would then meet those criteria. When I visited the US many years ago, before the visa waiver programme, I had to provide evidence of solvency to get a visa, but was not told what "evidence of solvency" looked like (I photocopied a year of bank statements; it did the trick).

Mr & Mrs Sterling are apparently required to meet a secret (or at least highly under-advertised) set of criteria for a "real" marriage. When the US first controlled immigration I expect it only had to be a legal marriage, but sham marriages were an obvious problem. So the Immigration people wanted to see wedding photos. So sham couples hired photographers. Then Immigration wanted to see you living together, so sham couples rented apartments. And so it goes on. The Immigration people are on an endless treadmill: whatever evidence they require will be produced, whether by sham couples or real ones. Now its got to the point where the sham couples will actually have better evidence of their reality than real couples, because they are more aware of the need to generate it. Or as Granny Weatherwax once put it, "Things that try to look like things often look more like things than things."

Its also ironic that a writer with a great talent for spotting trends and capturing the zeitgeist should be caught up in exactly the kind of insane socio-political trend that he writes about so entertainingly.