The UK is trying to put a stop to the practice of immigrants entering "sham marriages" to gain legal residency. But can the practice ever be stopped without trampling immigrants' rights?
According to the BBC, an estimated 3,500 such marriages occurred in 2004, prompting the UK home secretary to decree that immigrants could not marry without explicit government permission. However, this plan was struck down because it unfairly infringed on immigrants' rights, and in 2009 the number of sham marriages began to climb again. Mark Rimmer, the superintendent registrar for the London Borough of Brent, says, "We had people queuing up in our waiting area - all of them were just bogus marriage after bogus marriage." He says that some couples didn't speak the same language and that "their body language made it obvious that they barely knew each other." And in a bizarre-sounding BBC sting, "a reporter posed as an illegal immigrant - and quickly found people offering to help him marry."
Fake marriages for immigration purposes do have some disturbing implications. The BBC reports that "marriage rackets are using Eastern European brides to provide other migrants with a toehold in the UK," meaning that the sham marriage market could potentially become a form of sex trafficking. And of course it's not ideal for the UK government if lots of people game their immigration laws. On the other hand, determining whose marriage is "real" without discriminating seems very difficult. Rimmer's method sounds a little like racial profiling:
Pakistani and Portuguese is one that has seemed to crop up recently. If you see one [couple] … that's OK. But when you see three in a week, you start to think that something strange is going on.
The British government is now apparently considering using "biometric checks" to reduce bogus marriages. It's not clear what this means, but it sounds sinister. And really, aside from the problems it creates for law enforcement, legal residency actually seems like a pretty good reason to get married. That's why Elizabeth Gilbert did it, after a whole bunch of research leading to the conclusion that marriage has long been mostly an economic arrangement. In a time when people can fall in love, screw, shack up, and have kids without marrying — and when the governments of both the US and the UK are still invested in keeping marriage a straight-only institution — there's something appealing about allowing the government into your union just so you can deceive them.