Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir in which she chronicles her global quest for solace post-divorce, enjoyed an extensive run on the New York Times bestseller list. The book was then adapted into a movie, with actress Julia Roberts playing the part of Ms. Gilbert. In her follow-up book, Committed, the subtitle reads "A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage". But if the book is ever adapted to the big screen, I think the subtitle should read "An Immigration Love Story".
In Committed, Ms. Gilbert takes the readers on a journey through matrimonial history - in particular, marriage in Western history. After all, she spent ten months researching and reading works of eminent matrimonial scholars like Stephanie Coontz and Nancy Cott. We get a glimpse of expectations of marriage in different communities, especially the Hmongs. "But there is one critical gift that a traditional Hmong bride almost always receives on her wedding day, which all too often eludes the modern Western bride, and that is the gift of certainty."
We learn that in medieval Germany, the courts created two different kinds of legal marriage: Muntehe, a heavily binding permanent life contract; and Friedelehe, a more casual living arrangement between two consenting adults which took no account of dowry requirement or inheritance law, and which could be dissolved by either party at either time.
There was also the issue of coverture, or the belief that a woman's civil existence is erased the moment she marries.
And in early America, African slaves invented a form of marriage, "besom wedding" or jumping the broom, in which a couple jumped over a broomstick stuck aslant in a doorway and declared themselves married. As Ms. Gilbert rightly noted, "and nobody could stop those slaves from making this hidden commitment in a moment of stolen invisibility".
Ms. Gilbert undertook the research in an attempt to find answers to her own questions on the topic of matrimony. At age 37, having been married then divorced, she acknowledged not knowing much about the realities of 'institutionalized companionship'. She and her lover, Felipe, were "lifers" in that they had sworn fidelity to each other but also swore not to get married. Yet, Ms. Gilbert wrestling with the lingering how's. She ponders, "How did I know for certain that I will never again become infatuated with anybody else? How trustworthy is my heart? How solid is Felipe's loyalty to me? How do I know without doubt that outside desires won't tempt us apart?"
What is of greater interest to me, however, is the incident that precipitated Ms. Gilbert's musings and meditation on marriage. Her lover, Felipe, a Brazilian born man of Australian citizenship who ran an import/export business specializing in gemstones, had been living in Indonesia when they met, but traveled frequently to the United States to conduct business. Felipe was intercepted by Customs and Border Protection at a border crossing, as he attempted to re-enter the U.S. at Dallas/Fort Worth airport. As the Customs agent explained to Ms. Gilbert, "We've brought you back here to explain that we will not be allowing your boyfriend to enter the United States any more. We'll be detaining him in jail until we can get him on a flight out of the country, back to Australia, since he does have an Australian passport. After that, he won't be able to come back to America again." His offense? The Customs agent continued, "...the three-month visa waiver that the United States government offers to citizens of friendly countries is not intended for indefinite consecutive visits."
Fortunately for Ms. Gilbert, her love story has a happy ending - a brief detention, followed by a ten-month exile in Asia as they awaited permission from Department of Homeland Security to re-enter the U.S., a fiance visa allowing them to get married on American soil culminating in permanent residence. But not all couples and families enjoy such good fortune. Many endure lengthy detentions, miles apart from each other and if one spouse is deported, the chances of re-entry are virtually nil, leaving behind his/her U.S. citizen children.
Current U.S. immigration laws mandate deportation of lawful permanent resident (LPR) parents of thousands of U.S. citizen children, without providing these parents an opportunity to challenge their forced separations. Earlier this year, University of California (Berkeley and Davis Schools of Law) released a report titled, In the Child's Best Interest? The Consequences of Losing a Lawful Immigrant Parent to Deportation. According to the report, independent analysis of data from DHS estimates that more than 100,000 children have been affected by parental deportation between 1997 and 2007, and that at least 88,000 of these children were U.S. citizens.
Hopefully this issue could be an angle woven into the screenplay. I look forward to the release of the movie, Committed: An Immigration Love Story. Coming soon to a cinema near you!
Arlene M. Roberts is the author of The Faces of Detention and Deportation: A Report on the Forced Repatriation of Immigrants from the English-speaking Caribbean.