The perils of international online dating

Can an e-mail trail help determine whether a marriage was made in "good faith"?

By Andrew Leonard
Published June 11, 2008 10:45AM (EDT)

When a series of Filipina women began to initiate contact on my Friendster account a few years ago, it became all too clear that social networking was not immune from the traditional power dynamics that link the developed and developing worlds. Call me cynical, but I could think of only one good reason why complete strangers from across the Pacific Ocean were suddenly "friending" me out of the blue. They were looking for a way out of the Philippines and a way into a green-card marriage. But it did not cross my mind at the time that the e-mail exchanges that might ensue from such forays might one day be pored over by immigration officials attempting to evaluate whether a given marriage had been undertaken in "good faith."

"The Disruption of Marital EHarmony: Distinguishing Mail-Order Brides from Online Dating in Evaluating 'Good Faith Marriage,'" a legal essay by Brandon N. Robinson published in the Public Interest Law Reporter, explores the murky world where Internet dating meets the (e)-mail-order bride.

The crux of the issue: Suppose a Filipina woman and an American man meet through the Web site of an international matchmaking organization (IMO) and get married. But then woman accuses the man of abuse, and she attempts to escape the marriage but maintain her rights to U.S. citizenship via the "self-petitioning" provisions of the Violence Against Women Act.

Horrific examples of such abuse abound -- that is not in question. But in some cases the female party's sole goal is to gain citizenship, and she may therefore be falsely accusing the male party of abuse. When such cases come up for adjudication, writes Robinson, one of the key issues the adjudicator needs to decide is whether the marriage was entered into in "good faith."

As Internet dating gains social acceptance and affordable access to the Internet continues to penetrate developing countries, the U.S. can expect to see an increase in the number of marriages between U.S. citizens (USCs) and foreign spouses by way of IMOs. These "matches" often pair up USCs with poorer spouses from economically developing areas such as the Philippines, Latin America, or the former Soviet Union. IMOs are still rife with opportunities for abuse from either side of the client base and even third parties ... The VAWA process allows the innocent Internet bride in an abusive relationship to file her own petition and to qualify for spousal adjustment of status and employment authorization -- an important benefit to the poor immigrant spouse who is recently severed from the hand that both abuses and feeds her. To take advantage of this process, however, she must prove that she entered into the marriage in "good faith" and not merely to achieve legal immigration status. Proving good faith will increasingly call upon innocent Internet brides to distinguish themselves from the stereotypical "fraudulent Internet brides" overshadowing the international matchmaking industry.

Which brings us to the e-mail trail:

One revealing indication may be the length of correspondence between intended spouses before deciding to enter into marriage. Undoubtedly, written exchanges between intended spouses may be packed with misrepresentations, but evidence of a candid and sustained exchange of information may reveal that the sought-after "golden ticket" is that of marriage to the specific citizen, and not an easy entree into the United States. Conversely, a rapid exchange of emails, subsisting mainly of discussion about immigration documentation, may reveal the opposite. An immigration official with access to such correspondence may gain considerably more insight into the immigrant's intent than he would by examining a joint tax return. Although such love letters could be artificially constructed to manufacture evidence, the typical adjudicator is trained in assessing credibility, whether interviewing evidence or petitioners.

Once upon a time, immigration officers asked you to identify the color of your spouse's toothbrush, in an attempt to prove whether or you were truly intimate with your partner. But now they're just going to demand your backed-up e-mail.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Globalization How The World Works Immigration