This was difficult to argue, since that was precisely what Felipe had been doing.

"Is that a crime?" I asked.

"Not exactly."

"Not exactly, or no?"

"No, ma'am, it's not a crime. That's why we won't be arresting him.

But the three-month visa waiver that the United States government offers to citizens of friendly countries is not intended for indefinite consecutive visits."

"But we didn't know that," I said.

Felipe stepped in now. "In fact, sir, we were once told by an immigration officer in New York that I could visit the United States as often as I liked, as long as I never overstayed my ninety-day visa."

"I don't know who told you that, but it isn't true."

Hearing the officer say this reminded me of a warning Felipe had given me once about international border crossings: "Never take it lightly, darling. Always remember that on any given day, for any given reason whatsoever, any given border guard in the world can decide that he does not want to let you in."

"What would you do now, if you were in our situation?" I asked. This is a technique I've learned to use over the years whenever I find myself at an impasse with a dispassionate customer service operator or an apathetic bureaucrat. Phrasing the sentence in such a manner invites the person who has all the power to pause for a moment and put himself in the shoes of the person who is powerless. It's a subtle appeal to empathy. Sometimes it helps. Most of the time, to be honest, it doesn't help at all. But I was willing to try anything here.

"Well, if your boyfriend ever wants to come back into the United States again, he's going to need to secure himself a better, more permanent visa. If I were you, I would go about securing him one."

"Okay, then," I said. "What's the fastest way for us to secure him a better, more permanent visa?"

The Homeland Security officer looked at Felipe, then at me, then back at Felipe. "Honestly?" he said. "The two of you need to get married."
FROM: Marriage Around the World
Published on January 13, 2010