Second Life Artist Faces Setback in Struggle For American Citizenship

The U.S. government recently denied a green card application by a well-known Second Life artist, declaring her two-year marriage to an American citizen to be fraudulent. The news isn't all bad for her, though -- the denial gives her an opportunity to appeal and prove that the marriage was legitimate.
The U.S. government recently denied a green card application by a well-known Second Life artist, declaring her two-year marriage to an American citizen to be fraudulent. The news isn't all bad for her, though -- the denial gives her an opportunity to appeal and prove that the marriage was legitimate.However, she says she's growing weary of trying to untangle the red tape, and is preparing for the probability that she'll be forced to abandon her adopted home in America.

Irena Morris, known in Second Life as "Eshi Otawara," married an American citizen who died while her application for residency was still in progress. A provision in U.S. immigration law called the "widow's penalty" says that, in that situation, an alien's green card application should be rejected if the marriage lasted less than two years. The Morrises were married one year and 10 months when Glenn Morris died suddenly.

We wrote about Morris' immigration problem two weeks ago.

Morris, 27, said in a phone interview this week, "The last few days I've been bouncing around whether I should leave or fight this." She can't legally get a job in America, and since her husband died, she's been living off of the kindness of friends, and the small amounts of money she can earn as an artist in both Second Life and real life. "I'm packing. I don't know what to do. I have limited financial resources to fight this." She's also working on a motion to reopen her case with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. "They can stretch this out for the next two years. What am I supposed to live off of?"

She doesn't want to leave America, but she may have to, and return to her native Croatia. "I don't think I belong there. I don't want to go there. I'd feel like an American in exile," Morris.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is looking for evidence that Morris and her husband had a legitimate marriage. Generally, they look for joint bank accounts, bills, property and leases in both their names, according to Mike Castlen, a former immigration counselor who's helping Morris with her case. However, because Morris's husband supported her while she was waiting for her green card and work permit to clear, all their financial records were in his name only.

So Morris is assembling e-mails that she and her husband exchanged, as well as a few photos taken of them together (although she doesn't have many of those -- as an artist, generally she was the one behind the camera). And she's collecting affidavits from all their friends who can swear they were really married.

The e-mails are the kind that would be exchanged by any two people who'd been married only a short time, ranging in content from heartfelt declarations of love to mundane discussions of taxes and what time to have dinner. She said she thinks the e-mails are better evidence of the authenticity of their marriage than bank statements, which would be much more easily forged.

Castlen, who is helping Morris with the case, met Morris through Second Life. He worked as an American immigration counselor 20 years ago, and now works for a not-for-profit that does social work in developing countries. He said he got into Second Life last year to investigate how it might be used as a tool for social change, but now he just goes in to Second Life to play.

The way that he and Morris got together is an example of the power of social media to connect people.

Castlen and Morris met through a mutual friend in Second Life whose SL name is "Harper Beresford." Harper is also a friend of mine.

Beresford and Castlen attended college together in real life, and they reconnected in Second Life and on Twitter.

At first, Castlen had no idea that his new Second Life friend was also his old college friend, because Beresford, like many people in Second Life, keeps her real-life identity secret. But Beresford then revealed her real-life identity to Castlen.

When Beresford heard about Morris' problem, she connected Morris and Castlen, knowing about Castlen's background as an immigration counselor. And Castlen helped Morris find Brent Renison, an immigration attorney who works on widow's penalty cases pro bono.

Morris's case reminds me of another incident: "American Journalist Uses Twitter To Bust Out Of Egyptian Jail:" "As Egyptian police were descending on UC Berkeley graduate journalism student James Karl Buck, he had time to send just one word to his friends on Twitter: "ARRESTED." A day later, he walked out of jail, accompanied by an Egyptian attorney hired by UC Berkeley and the U.S. Embassy on the phone."

Both Morris and Buck used social media to find the connections they need to help them out of a bureaucratic disaster. That kind of leveraging social media is becoming more commonplace, as Clay Shirky writes in his book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power Of Organizing Without Organizations.

But the connections and leverage have to be there first. In that respect, TechCrunch completely missed the point when they headlined their story about the Egyptian incident, Twitter Saves Man From Egyptian Justice.

Blogger Prokofy Neva corrected TechCrunch: "$29 Billion in US Foreign Aid to Egypt in 30 Years Saves Twittering College Kid." Neva adds: "His translator remains in jail. As do Egyptian journalists, bloggers, lawyers, human rights activists. As do bloggers in Saudi Arabia or all kinds of places where states control people's expression."

Neva is right. The entire weight of Twitter and Second Life and all the other social media in the world combined won't help you out if the bureaucracy you're fighting against doesn't care. But it's equally true that all the money and connected friends in the world won't help you if you can't get to them. And social media can help make those connections.

We'll see if those connections are enough to help Morris become an American.