Guest post by Palak Dhiman, PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Carleton University, Canada. Her research is centred in the South Asian community in Canada to explore the colonial genealogy, contemporary discursive circulation, and actual practices of ‘arranged marriage,’ a term loaded with assumptions and connotations. Part of this project considers what government regulation of marriage through spousal sponsorship reveals about how governments define the ‘ideal,’ ‘legitimate,’ or ‘real’ marriage. 

On 19 May 2015, an article was published by the Toronto Star with the headline ‘Immigration Guide for Detecting Marriage Fraud Called “Racist and Offensive.”’ This article was in reference to the discovery of a leaked training manual guide which listed over three pages of warnings, or ‘red flags,’ for Canadian immigration officers to use in the detection of ‘sham marriages’ (also known as ‘fraud marriages’ or ‘marriages of convenience’), during their assessments of spousal sponsorship applications. Among the ‘red flags’ were: couples not kissing on the lips in their wedding photos, ‘university-educated Chinese nationals who marry non-Chinese,’ the lack of diamond wedding rings, and Canadian sponsors deemed relatively uneducated or low-income.

Assessments of marriages, as Charsley and Benson have argued, are judged through binaries of genuine versus sham, legitimate versus non-legitimate, real versus fake, and so on. As with any binary, these are limiting as they cannot fully account for the complexities of any marriage or the multitude of reasons for getting married, part of which may indeed be the potential for migration. The regulation of marriage and applicants’ relationships through marriage migration processes demonstrates the many ways that marriages are assessed as ‘real’ or ‘fake,’ revealing what the Canadian state understands to be legitimate marriages. According to the Toronto Star article, ‘Citizenship and Immigration Canada [CIC] denied that the training material was racist and insisted all spousal applications from around the world are assessed equally, against exactly the same criteria, regardless of country of origin.’ This response by CIC is worth unpacking to help understand the production of ‘legitimacy’ in the context of marriage migration.

First, the criteria used by immigration officials in countries such as Canada is Eurocentric where Euro-Canadian culture is taken as a taken-for-granted or ‘common sense’ normativity through which immigration policies are developed and within which immigration officers operate. These ‘street-level bureaucrats’ exercise numerous forms of discretion and draw upon various frameworks while conducting application assessments. Immigration officials question applicants’ relationships based on two notions of love: ‘romantic love’ and those of ‘realistic love.’ In turn, while defending their own relationships as genuine, applicants respond by also drawing on these two main frameworks in different ways at different times to challenge government officials’ understanding of what constitutes genuine love and intimacy in a marriage.

Second, Canadian immigration officials employ three overlapping cultural lenses in order to assess relationships against a certain notion of what constitutes ‘normality.’ These perspectives, as Satzewich has shown, include particular assumptions about universal relationship norms, common-sense norms in the Canadian context, and more culturally and regionally contingent relationship norms. The very idea of universal, common-sense, or culturally normative relationships is problematic and its effects are obvious among those applicants whose marriages are seen as being ‘atypical.’ More specifically, according to Wray, it leads to the idea that at the very least, marriages viewed as atypical (in one or all three normative frameworks) require increased scrutiny, for example, in the form of additional interviews by immigration officials. This serves to reinforce notions of normativity in defining what typical marriages ‘are’ (and therefore what they are ‘supposed’ to be).

The Canadian government also permits its immigration officials to use the cultural norms of the applicants as the basis for determining whether applicants’ relationships are indeed ‘legitimate.’ Although this process is intended to be more inclusive, it raises additional questions, such as: who’s in a position to decide what an applicant’s cultural norm is? What are the research and training processes through which immigration officers learn what constitutes cultural norms?  Do officials take into account that cultures change and evolve and don’t therefore remain homogenous? And this leads to the question of what is really being assessed? Is it the ‘genuineness’ of relationships or are immigration officers now policing individuals as to whether or not they’re following their own ‘cultural traditions’ as understood and defined by immigration officers? How does this reconcile with the CIC’s claims that they use the same criteria to assess applicants regardless of cultural background?

Indeed, immigration officials often draw upon anecdotal evidence when explaining whether or not they believe an applicant is following or deviating from their cultural norms (the latter of which constitutes a ‘red flag’ to be further investigated). Even using the method of considering the knowledge of local staff, as in the case of British Entry Clearance Officers (ECOs) working at entry clearance posts abroad and consulting with locally appointed members presents a different set of problems as these individuals are educated and qualified as immigration-related staff (such as interpreters, administrative officials, and so on) and not as experts on local cultures. ECOs’ own preconceived notions and understandings may form part of their assessments in these consultations.

Processes of marriage regulation, however, can only be understood by examining how different forms of inequality intersect in this complex phenomenon of marital relationships and the assessments of genuine versus sham relationships in the context of immigration. A recent paper by Satzewich shows how process of inclusion and exclusion occur through visa officials’ decision-making along class lines. He found that immigration officers were more likely to treat cultural norms as homogenous (or as they term ‘traditional’) among applicants from rural backgrounds and with lower socioeconomic statuses. On the other hand, the higher the socioeconomic status of the applicant and the more urban their context, the more likely immigration officers were to accept applicants’ deviations from what they understood as ‘traditional’ cultural norms surrounding courtship and marriage practices. Therefore not only do governments use different criteria to assess individuals of different cultural backgrounds (that is, using the ‘norms’ of an applicant’s cultural background as the basis of judging the legitimacy of the marriage), these differences are then further exacerbated when analyzed along class lines. It’s important, then, that studies of the decisions made by immigration officials be examined through an intersectional analysis that considers the workings of gender, race, and class, among other factors.

This issue of government regulation of spousal sponsorship is significant to consider, especially in the wake of the leaking of CIC’s training materials. Despite CIC’s denial that the guidelines are racist, the red flags listed speak to a taken-for-granted Eurocentric normativity in courtship and marriage practices, as well as a normativity related to class background. The materials don’t take into account that particular forms of public displays of affection (such as kissing on the lips at wedding ceremonies or even in public) and the particular jewelry worn to signal one is married (such as a diamond ring) aren’t universal. The red flags related to Canadian sponsors deemed uneducated or low-income, as well as the statement that ‘university-educated Chinese nationals who marry non-Chinese,’ reveal how the Canadian state intervenes directly into the private decisions of individuals about what constitutes acceptable marriage partners for them. As this discussion has shown, it’s important to consider the social and cultural production of criteria used to assess the legitimacy of spousal sponsorship applications,  how these are negotiated and enforced and to what effect.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Dhiman, P. (2015) Who Gets In? How States Regulate Acceptable versus Unacceptable Marriages. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/acceptable-versus-unacceptable-marriages/ (Accessed [date]).