Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Should You Report a Green-Card Marriage?

January 29, 2017 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, without imposing values, here is my take on today’s post, “Should You Report a Green-Card Marriage?

I am an American living abroad and working as a consultant for a U.S. government-funded project. I am not a full-time government employee, but technically my fees come from U.S. taxpayer money. I was recently invited to the wedding of a local acquaintance, a citizen of the country where I live, who was marrying another citizen of that country, someone who has U.S. citizenship. I was unable to attend the ceremony but ran into the bride a month later at a social event. When I congratulated her, she explained to me that the recent marriage was a fraud, one she’d entered into only in order to gain U.S. citizenship. She then introduced me to her “real” boyfriend. The interaction left me feeling very unsettled. Do I have an ethical obligation to speak out about marriage fraud when it is used to gain U.S. citizenship, particularly if my current work is funded by the U.S. government? Name Withheld

My response: The question if you have an ethical obligation is a question of opinion. If there were an absolute answer, you wouldn’t wonder. You’d just consult the absolute right answer and be done with it.

You didn’t because there isn’t. INS rules would consider it right for you to report. The married couple would consider it wrong.

Absent absolute right and wrong answers, what do you do? I recommend not seeking absolutes, nor relying on third-party opinions, but to consider all your options, creating new ones if you can, considering the results of each, how your actions would affect others—that is, using empathy—and do what you think best.

You know the issues. You have to apply your values to the situation to find out what it right for you.

The New York Times response:

Our immigration laws allow people to bring their spouses into the country as permanent residents — the green-card part — and then, after a period and if they meet certain conditions, permit them to acquire citizenship. This is because we respect the central role of intimate relationships in people’s lives. In my view, it’s a way of taking seriously the rights to family life articulated in Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations after World War II. It’s an ethically attractive feature of our system.

That system also allows others to enter for a variety of other reasons. Some come in temporarily for tourism or study; some are seeking asylum and may end up here permanently; some have been offered specialized jobs for which they are better qualified than any citizens who have applied; some have won a lottery, and so on. Normally, permanent residents must wait five years before applying for citizenship, although noncitizens who have served honorably in our military are given an expedited path to naturalization. The laws are designed to meet both our moral obligations, as in the case of asylum, and our national needs. Many of us feel that this country’s economic and cultural strength is in part a result of our openness to immigration. (I speak as an immigrant who became a citizen myself.)

But it is the nature of the nation-state arrangement that states have a right to regulate who crosses their borders. You may disagree with one feature or another of our system, but over all it is fairer than many others. And if someone abuses it by the sort of fraud you have described, they are not only breaking the law, they are jumping a queue that millions of other people have formed by applying properly and then waiting their turn.

Given that you’re clearly not the only person who has the relevant information, and given the diffuse nature of the harm, you’re not obligated to report what you know. But provided you are morally certain about your conclusion, it would be a good thing if you did. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has a website where you may report anonymously. (Filing false information is a crime.) It would be up to them to confirm what you say.

Obviously, the person who told you about this crime assumed, for whatever reason, that you wouldn’t pass the information on. But you didn’t agree to that, and your informant had no right to expect you to cover for her. Would it make a difference if the abuser here had been a closer friend and not just an acquaintance? No doubt. For one thing, with a closer friend, you would have known all along what she was planning and you could have urged her not to do it. And a friend is owed considerations of loyalty and confidentiality. The whole moral situation would have been different. Finally: The funding for your job has no bearing on what you should do. If you were not an American, though, the call on you to act here, which is related in part to your membership as a citizen, would be less obvious.

Forty-five years ago, I gave up a child for adoption. There is a significant history of colon cancer in my family: Do I have a moral obligation to inform this person about his increased risk? At 45, he should have his first colonoscopy, then follow up every five years, compared to the general population, who can wait to start at 50, with follow-ups every 10 years. Name Withheld

My response: I don’t see the point of bringing morality into it. I don’t see why you wouldn’t share this information. Is the point that he doesn’t know he was adopted? Do you not know how to reach him? Why wouldn’t you just tell him?

The New York Times response:

Your wish is to remain anonymous. How easy it is to pass on information to an adoptee depends on the laws of the state where the adoption occurred. But I trust you would have mentioned it if that was a problem. If not, the answer is obvious: Pass it on.

A family friend sent me a baby gift from India. It is a small necklace of carved ivory elephants and beads. Both the necklace and I are 72 years old. What is the ethical choice for the necklace? I would like to do something to benefit elephants, but no elephant protection organization has answered my letters. Nancy Polk, Conn.

My response: I’m sure you know the issues. Increasing the demand for something raises its price, which motivates people to procure that thing. The elephant detail is a red herring. The price increase may be too small for you to measure, but it happens. It could be about many things, not just elephants.

I suggest the question isn’t what they ethical choice is but what you will do.

The New York Times response:

As you know, the reason the international ivory trade has been banned is to reduce elephant poaching and maintain the populations of these cognitively sophisticated animals. Both are worthwhile aims. No market for ivory, no incentive to hunt it.

That’s the logic, although how well the approach works is hotly debated. (One complication is that ivory is mainly smuggled to East Asia, where domestic trade is permitted in some countries. China, however, recently announced a new ban on trading and processing ivory, to take effect by the end of 2017.) Most African countries where elephants live have seen significant losses in elephant populations in the past two decades. There are exceptions. Namibia has set up communal conservancies, devolving management to local communities and allowing limited hunting; the government says its elephant population has been increasing. The problem is complex, and the solutions may have to be, too.

The circulation of antique ivory like yours doesn’t threaten modern elephants, of course. But there is concern that allowing it might, because people would pretend that new ivory was antique to get around the ban. That’s one reason that wearing even antique ivory jewelry offends some people. And it’s true that you can’t tell at a glance whether the jewelry was made of old ivory or new or, for that matter, faux ivory made from Tagua palm kernels, cow bones or resin. But you could say the same about piano keyboards. Old pieces of jewelry — and old musical instruments — shouldn’t be shunned because they were made of ivory.

So your coming into possession of this ivory necklace doesn’t entail your doing anything in particular. Commendably, though, thinking about the ivory has made you think about what you can do for the elephants alive today. It would be a fine thing to support a reputable organization that contributes to the welfare of the elephant population. But do your research. Just as you can’t tell the origin of ivory at a glance, you can’t tell at a glance whether one of the hundreds of organizations that claim to be protecting elephants is really doing effective work.

While planning a vacation, I decided that I would hire a local student to house-sit and dog-sit. My husband, who teaches at a local university, said he would get one of his students to do it free. When I brought up the possibility that the student could feel coerced, he said it would be a former student. My husband thinks that because he house-sat and cat-sat free for a professor in college, it’s O.K. to ask this of his students. I think that even if it was “O.K.” then, it isn’t now. There’s always a power differential between a faculty member and a student, and the faculty member should go out of his way to avoid any abuse of power. What do you think? Name Withheld

My response: From one perspective, there’s a power differential. From another, it’s an opportunity for two people to develop their relationship further. What relationships don’t have power differentials of any sort whatsoever? I see the issue as not what is the power dynamic but how do you and your husband resolve the difference in your opinions?

I recommend improving your skills to resolve conflict and negotiate. I don’t see how your discussion ended up unresolved to such a point that you wrote the New York Times about it.

The New York Times response:

I’m with you. While someone who studied with you is entitled to do you favors, it isn’t right to ask them to do an unpaid job on that basis. Former students may be in need of recommendations and the like from former professors; there are forms of exploitation that fall well short of coercion

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