Your family, immediately

Welcome to the United States. Where we know what a family is, and is not.

“Whether you are a visitor to the United States or U.S. citizen,” we are told, “each individual arriving into the United States must complete one or more of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) entry forms.” In particular, if you are a U.S. citizen you will be asked to complete form 6059B. (And no, if you’re wondering, there is no form 6059A in existence, as far as we know.)

Actually, not everyone has to complete one, but rather “one responsible family member,” since “ONE written declaration per family is required.” Instructions available online clarify that CBP means “immediate family.”

Which brings us to the “interesting family sociology experience” one of this blog’s informants had at the border recently.

My cohabiting girlfriend and I were returning from… Since we packed all of our stuff mixed together in our two bags (clothes, stuff we bought, etc.) we thought it was a good idea to only fill out one customs form. The form said that if you are a “family traveling together” [more or less verbatim -pnc] you only need to fill out one form, and so we thought, “Hey let’s be a family.”

Why not? In the U.S. cohabiting-but-not-married couples often think of themselves as “common law” couples and describe themselves as married — which authorities often implicitly allow. And couples may also be “domestic partners” or in “civil unions” in some states and countries, regardless of marital status.

But is that a family? It’s not according to official economics, which assumes people share expenses — and thus poverty status — only if married (according to unverified self-report) or related by birth or adoption. On the other hand, a divorced parent traveling with his kids would naturally report them as a “family” even if they don’t live together.

And the federal government will soon allow people in homogamous couples to take Family and Medical Leave Act time off work to care for their children, even if not biologically related or adopted.

Federal law does not recognize same-sex relationships. But Labor Department lawyers have concluded that people in such relationships may nevertheless qualify for family and medical leave when they act as parents, sharing the care and support of a child.

So the unmarried couple arriving at the airport has a point…

So we get up to the agent to process us and hand him our forms. He said, “I see here it says you’re a family traveling together”. We replied, “yes, we live together and have been traveling for 3 weeks; we packed all of our stuff in the same bags”. His next question: “are you married” – response “no, we live together”. Then he yelled at us extremely loudly: “what about being a family do you not understand; you know I can haul you in for lying to a border agent and saying you’re a family when you’re not.” I think I was wise to not point out that family was not defined on the form (or anywhere) and that I would love the official customs and border patrol definition of a family. We just said sorry, reiterated that we were traveling together, fumbled a bit and were eventually let through.

What if they together cared for a child who was not traveling with them? Would that make them a family? And anyway, what difference does any of this make for customs, when the purpose of the form is to

provid[e] basic information about who you are [also on your passport -pnc] and what you are bringing into the country, such as agricultural products and whether or not you have visited a farm prior to traveling to the United States.

The recognition of dominant family norms requires countless small acts of deference, much more frequent than formal declarations and proof. But when the center is not holding — as it  isn’t — then our beleaguered authorities will instead find themselves encountering countless small acts of defiance. All they had to do was say they were married.

The (not-married) secretary of Homeland Security shakes down some border agents.

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One response to “Your family, immediately

  1. Pingback: Teaching family inequality: Some posts by subject | Family Inequality

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