Marriage Fraud the Latest Front in the Immigration Battle

Caitlin Webber, Congressional Quarterly, December 22, 2008

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Aspiring immigrants are increasingly using sham marriages to circumvent immigration rules, according to a recent report from the Center for Immigration Studies, and U.S. authorities are largely unable to stop them.

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Immigrant advocates who put a premium on family reunification take issue with the CIS study and say marriage procedures are already too restrictive. They also make the case that an increase in marriages between Americans and foreigners is simply a natural result of growing global interconnectivity.

David Seminara, author of the CIS report and a former consular official, says marriage fraud does a disservice to other would-be immigrants, undermines the integrity of the immigration system and poses a threat to national security. He argues that the government should stiffen penalties for fraudulent nuptials and make it harder for foreigners to gain immigration benefits by marrying an American.

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“The real problem with marriage and immigration law and policy is how the government disrespects the marriages of U.S. citizens and legal immigrants who obey the rules,” Paul Donnelly, spokesman for American Families United, which works to reunite Americans’ foreign spouses and children, said in an interview.

Legal permanent residents have to wait almost five years—nearly eight years for Mexicans—to bring a foreign-born spouse or child into the United States. Americans who marry foreigners that have overstayed prior visas or have been discovered in the country illegally cannot bring that spouse or child into the country for at least three years, with a maximum 10-year term of inadmissibility if the visa overstay is greater than one year or the foreigner is deported.

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Slipping Through the Cracks

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Chris Rhatagian, spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Homeland Security Department agency that processes immigration applications, said in an interview that “marriage fraud is a very lucrative business and we are aware that people are desperate to come to the U.S. and do desperate things. We scrutinize marriage requests and we look for trends, but we are not the marriage people, by any means.”

And James Spero, deputy assistant director for critical infrastructure and fraud for Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Office of Investigations, said in an interview that the number of marriage fraud cases over the last several years have held at “a fairly steady number, I don’t think that we have seen any great increase or decrease.”

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“There is no way to get good statistics on [marriage fraud],” Seminara said in an interview. “Out of 100 marriage fraud cases, maybe 10 or 20 have a smoking gun, you can find proof, but it’s very hard to prove marriage fraud, even with incredibly improbable couples.”

And he said many cases slip through the cracks, partially because consular officials don’t have the authority to deny suspicious fiancé or spouse petitions. They can only refer them to USCIS for secondary scrutiny.

In researching his report, Seminara interviewed currently deployed consular officials, some of whom said that up to 30 percent of the marriage petitions they encountered they believed to be fraudulent.

‘A Lot of Money Changes Hands’

Marriage fraud can be two-sided—in which both spouses are complicit in the deception, or one-sided, when one spouse dupes the other into marriage to get to the United States.

Less often, an American uses marriage to traffic a foreign “spouse” into the U.S. with nefarious intents—these cases are handled by special human trafficking task forces.

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Dawn Nelson, acting unit chief for identity and benefit fraud for ICE’s Office of Investigations, said that marriage fraud rings aren’t dominated by certain nationalities.

“It’s not one size fits all. It runs the gamut,” she said. “There’s no one person we are looking for.” But a common thread among organized scammers is that “usually a lot of money changes hands.” A wannabe immigrant could pay tens of thousands of dollars for facilitation with a fraudulent marriage.

ICE and USCIS believe cases of two-sided fraud are much more prevalent than scams where one spouse thinks the marriage is for love and the other just wants immigration status.

But Seminara said that, in his experience and that of his former colleagues, one-sided marriage fraud does happen. And regardless of consular officials’ suspicions, Seminara said the State Department standard is that “if the American thinks [the marriage] is real, it’s real.”

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But after a marriage is recognized and a foreign-born spouse has received conditional legal permanent residency, it is very difficult to prosecute marriage fraud. Foreign-born spouses can receive waivers of the two-year marriage requirement if they claim to be victims of abuse.

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[Editor’s Note: “Hello, I Love You, Won’t You Tell Me Your Name: Inside the Green Card Marriage Phenomenon,” by David Seminara can be read in HTML format and the PDF file downloaded here.]

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