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Tips for Green Card Through Marriage
Yet while there is endless debate about the quantity and type of workers we import, there is very little focus or discussion on the foreign spouses Americans bring to the country — either through genuine relationships or fraudulent ones. Any serious examination of legal immigration to the United States must include a close look at the most common path to American citizenship: Marriage fraud for the purpose of immigration is not a new idea. More than 20 years ago the United States Senate held hearings on the topic and concluded that it was a significant and growing problem, but only a few of the recommendations proposed ever went anywhere. Meanwhile, the number of foreign nationals obtaining green cards through marriage to Americans has more than doubled since and has quintupled since Most relationships between Americans and foreign nationals are legitimate, but because of the prevalence of sham marriages, legitimate international couples can face longer wait times due to the huge number of bogus marriage petitions that bog down an already slow and cumbersome visa bureaucracy. Scam marriages also can cast a shadow of illegitimacy over real marriages, and many legitimate couples may be forced to endure invasive and sometimes harsh interviews with United States Citizenship and Immigration Service USCIS and State Department personnel who are trying in good faith to screen out fake couples. I have dozens of American friends, and even two family members, who have married foreign nationals, so I know first-hand that not all foreigners who marry Americans are simply seeking a one-way ticket to the United States. Nonetheless, my experience as a consular officer and the experience of other officers interviewed for this Backgrounder; the numerous arrests of those involved in marriage fraud schemes; and the hundreds, if not thousands, of websites that exist solely for the purpose of arranging scam marriages all indicate that marriage fraud is a serious problem that needs to be addressed if we are to implement any kind of meaningful immigration reform in the United States. One Way or Another: How Spouses Enter the U. Prior to , most overseas posts allowed American citizens to file petitions in any country, regardless of where their permanent residences were, and huge numbers of Americans chose to file overseas in the belief usually correct that the process would be quicker than waiting for USCIS to approve the petition stateside. Approval of the petition signifies that a consular officer or USCIS adjudicator has verified that a valid, qualifying relationship exists between an American petitioner and foreign applicant. If they do not, the foreign national must return home, though many find ways to stay, either legally or illegally. Couples can claim on paper that they share a language, for example, but when they are interviewed at the embassy, it will be obvious if they do not. This is a common characteristic of fraudulent marriages. For Americans paid to enter into fraudulent marriages, filing documents through the mail rather than having to appear at a consulate or embassy is more convenient and less stressful, particularly if they know that potential penalties for marriage fraud include large fines and jail time. Only the local person — not the American — is required to appear at the embassy and interviews are typically conducted in the local language unless the applicant speaks English. Applicants are subject to an FBI criminal background check and must provide a local police certificate verifying that they have no criminal background. FBI checks rarely reveal crimes committed overseas, however, and local police certificates are more or less a formality in many developing countries due to corruption or a lack of accurate record-keeping. Applicants also must undergo a medical examination by an embassy-approved local physician. Americans must furnish a notarized affidavit of support form I in order to bring a spouse to the United States. The I is supposed to be a legally binding contract obliging Americans to provide for their spouses while in the United States and requires petitioners to reimburse the relevant state or local authority if an immigrant becomes a public charge. But there is no effective enforcement once immigrants arrive in the United States. Sometimes they really were poor, and finessed the requirements with the help of a co-sponsor. The law allows anyone to be a co-sponsor. Other applicants who were poor on paper claimed that they made far more money than their tax return indicated, sometimes brandishing lavish bank accounts to document their U. While some immigrants move to rural areas, most reside in large metropolitan areas with a high cost of living. Ticket to Ride — Step Three: Unlike in the film Green Card, immigration inspectors do not make unannounced visits to the homes of newlyweds. Couples generally need only appear for one interview when conditional status is removed, at which time they are supposed to produce documentary evidence that they still live together joint tax returns, bank accounts, etc. Three years after removing the conditional status on their green cards, immigrants are eligible for American citizenship and at that time can petition to bring relatives to the United States — spouses, parents, and single, minor children can join them with no waiting period. Siblings can join them in the United States within years, with the exception of Filipinos who often have to wait upwards of 20 years. Adjustment of Status For every immigrant spouse who obtains an immigrant visa and ultimately a green card at a U. This is becoming increasingly common — in and , a total of nearly half a million foreign nationals gained adjustment of status green cards through marriage to U. But surely those who were honest about their original intentions would need to return home to settle affairs and collect belongings, as well as apply for the visa. In practice, adjustment of status is most convenient for tourists intent on fraudulent marriage. I interviewed hundreds of visa applicants who wanted to visit friends or relatives who had arrived in the United States on tourist visas and adjusted status via marriages, some real and some fake. Meanwhile, the applicant lived in New Jersey for nearly 18 months thanks to tourist visa extensions and conveniently got married to an American citizen a week before his authorized stay was up, immediately filing for adjustment of status. It was all perfectly legal and his application was approved despite the clear fact that he misrepresented his purpose and length of travel during his interview with the consular officer. The very notion of allowing foreign tourists to remain indefinitely in the United States without first returning home makes no sense. If a visitor arrived on a tourist visa and intended to return home as scheduled, he only would have some of his belongings with him. Can Buy Me Love: Today, there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of international matchmaking businesses operating around the world — most for the express purpose of matching lonely men from the United States and other wealthy countries with women from developing countries who want to live in the United States, Canada, or Western Europe. A random sampling of the various websites provides insight into the motivations of both the American grooms and the younger women they pursue. For example, the site Goodwife. And while consular officers have no authority to tell Americans whom they can marry, USCIS does have the authority to deny visas if foreign nationals do not meet the legal requirements and there is a strong case for denying waivers of ineligibility in these cases. This should include mail-order brides with histories of visa fraud. Most of these kinds of fraud make one ineligible for a visa, but the spouses of American citizens can often qualify for a waiver of ineligibility. Arranged marriages — where parents choose partners for their children — is still common in many developing countries, particularly in the Middle East, South Asia, and the Pacific Rim. An officer with experience at a busy post in South Asia, for example, told me that between 75 and 90 percent of the married couples applying for immigrant visas at his post were arranged marriages. As a consular officer in Skopje, I interviewed hundreds of ethnic Albanian newlyweds from Macedonia and Kosovo who had been fixed up by their parents and barely knew each other. Many of the American citizen petitioners were recent immigrants themselves and their parents wanted them to retain their Albanian culture by finding a spouse from the old country. In Albanian-American enclaves in the United States such as Staten Island, one of the first things recent, single immigrants do when they receive green cards is begin to search for a spouse or have their parents find them one in their home country. In Skopje, I would frequently encounter recent immigrants who had been granted asylum and received green cards in the United States and then immediately returned home to Kosovo or Macedonia to search for spouses. So much for having a credible fear of return to their home countries. Many arranged marriages that take place in Kosovo and other parts of the world are perfectly legitimate in that the couple does intend to live together as man and wife in the United States. Typically, the parents of legitimate arranged couples know each other quite well, however, so some consular officers try to contact them to confirm that a relationship is bona fide, but this is time consuming and not always possible. The main reasons for this are language and culture. Most Americans — particularly those on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum — only speak English and most determined immigrants do not. In Latin America, the language issue is less of a problem because there are millions of Spanish speakers in the United States to choose from, but in other parts of the world the language issue is a major obstacle for would-be sham marriage couples. Most overseas consular officers are immediately suspicious of married couples who cannot communicate with each other — even though there is no legal requirement for couples to share any common language — and many consular officers, especially in the busiest posts, will approve marriage petitions for couples that share no common language. The other primary obstacle is that most Americans desperate enough to engage in this illegal behavior have no significant overseas travel history or knowledge of other cultures. USCIS had approved the petition despite the fact that the petitioner had only been in Hungary for 72 hours, had no previous U. The Nigerian claimed that they met in a chance encounter on the street and freely acknowledged that she had entered Hungary illegally and claimed asylum, supposedly based on a fear of circumcision in Nigeria despite the fact that she was easily 20 years past the normal circumcision age. Curious to know how the American petitioner would explain making his first overseas trip to Hungary for just a weekend, I called the number listed on the petition. Our conversation went something like this: Most fraud perpetrators know that marriage fraud is extremely difficult to prove and few are ever punished. Recent immigrants in the United States often play a pivotal role in smuggling in their friends and relatives via fraudulent marriages. Friends and family members of those lucky enough to make it into the States see and hear about the good life their contacts are supposedly leading and they want in on it. The immigrants feel a sense of responsibility to help those who want to follow them, and at the same time, want to have their family and social circle with them in the United States to help recreate the positive aspects of life in the mother country. I once interviewed a year-old Macedonian man named Darko who married a year-old woman named Elizabeth from a small town in South Carolina. Elizabeth had filed the petition in the United States, so I returned the petition to USCIS with a request for them to reconsider their approval of the petition, but I never heard back. This is not unusual. Some who broker bogus marriages do so by exercising authority over those they employ or supervise. During my tenure in Skopje, I interviewed several native-born American waitresses who worked at restaurants owned by ethnic Albanian immigrants from Kosovo or Macedonia. The women were filing marriage-based immigration petitions for friends or relatives of the restaurant owners. The common threads in each case were that the Americans had no connection to the Balkans, had never traveled internationally, and claimed to have accepted free trips to Kosovo or Macedonia as bonuses from their bosses. Even diplomats themselves have been rumored to be involved in fake marriages for the purpose of immigration. Officers with consular experience in Russia told me about an American public affairs officer who entered into a highly suspicious marriage with a Russian national who turned out to be involved in a smuggling ring. The officer previously had come under suspicion for issuing hundreds of suspect visa referrals to poorly qualified or organized crime-related visa applicants. While I can understand why consular officers enjoy the reduced workload, the reality is that it is far easier for consular officers to prove that a case is fraudulent when they have both parties sitting in front of them. A couple that seems outrageously incongruous in person might not look so crazy on paper, and so the result is that USCIS rubber-stamps nearly all marriage petitions. Further complicating matters, the State Department has, on numerous occasions, warned consular officers in the field against re-adjudicating petitions that USCIS has already approved. This directive more or less absolves from guilt consular officers who choose not to spend their time investigating suspicious cases. Fortunately, some consular officers are willing to investigate suspect cases, recognizing that USCIS staff in the United States are overwhelmed, understaffed, and under pressure to give petitions a rubber-stamp approval. You Belong to Me: Abuse and Criminality Aside from your garden-variety smugglers and individuals seeking to immigrate to the United States, there are also far more nefarious individuals using marriage fraud to achieve criminal or terrorist goals. Not only do American men exploit foreign women, but foreign men sometimes also use coercion, threats, and sometimes outright violence to induce American women to marry them as a means of gaining entry to the United States. Early on in my tenure in Macedonia, I came across a disturbing example of this. A young American woman of Albanian descent, Toni, had been held hostage for several months by an abusive Kosovar, Shefqet, who insisted on keeping her passport and restricting her freedom of movement until she married him and he received an immigrant visa to the United States. I intended to make Shefqet cool his heels in the waiting room while I spoke to Toni alone, but Shefqet showed up for his interview alone as discussed above, after a petition is approved, only the immigrant needs to be present for the interview. I called Toni, and she confirmed what her mother had told me. Shefqet had seized her passport and canceled her ticket home. She had wanted to come to the embassy for the interview, but, not trusting her, he forbade her to come. Toni had called the police on him for beating her, but later dropped the charges after he threatened to kill her and the police told her that it was her duty to listen to her husband, not to file charges against him. Shefqet looked nervous the moment they showed up at the Embassy a few days later. He knew that if he refused to show up with her he had no chance of getting a visa, but he also must have realized that his wife would pull the plug on his American dreams. I called his wife up to the visa window, which was inside a private room that we used for delicate situations.
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