Marriage Just For a Green Card? Legal and Procedural Problems

Here's what really happens when well-meaning friends offer to marry someone for immigration purposes.

If you’ve got a friend in the U.S. who’d like to help you get a green card by getting married, that probably speaks well of your friend’s kind intentions – but not his or her common sense. Even if no money changes hands, getting married without the intention of forming a life together, but with the object of gaining lawful permanent residence, is considered marriage fraud under the U.S. immigration laws.

Marriage fraud can expose both you and the U.S.  citizen to criminal penalties (though the most severe penalties are reserved for the big-time criminals). It can also get you, the immigrant, an order of removal from the United States, which will come with a bar on reentering for some years into the future, and ruin your credibility with the immigration officials.

What Will Really Happen

Let’s talk about the practical consequences of entering into a false marriage. It may seem like an exciting idea to you now, and the U.S. citizen may even enjoy the sense of self-sacrifice that comes with thwarting the law on your behalf. But such sentiments are likely to wear off as the days and years go by.  

Here’s why. This isn’t a matter of simply turning in an application and getting your green card. The immigration laws have put into place so many steps to getting a marriage-based green card, and incorporated so many tests into the process, that only a truly married couple is likely to have the fortitude to get through it.

The Application Process

For starters, you have to get married. Sure, if you’re already living in the U.S., you could just go down to City Hall and take care of this, but the immigration authorities are, at some point, going to want to see evidence of a real wedding – ideally with photos, guests, and so on. Is this really a charade you want to put on for your family and friends?

Next, your U.S. citizen "husband" or "wife" would have to file a visa petition on your behalf. You’d have to enclose a copy of your marriage certificate.  

After that’s approved, the process would depend on whether you’re living in the U.S. (in which case you might, if you entered legally or are in legal status), be able to "adjust status"—that is, apply for and get your green card without leaving.  If you’re oversesas, you’d use the process called "Consular Processing." In either case, expect lots of fees, forms to fill out, requests for documents, and more.

As a condition of your immigrating, your U.S. spouse would need to show evidence of sufficient income or assets to support you. For details, see, “Financial Support You'll Need to Apply For a Family-Based Green Card.” What’s more, he or she would have to sign an I-864 Affidavit of Support promising to repay the U.S. government if you end up needing government assistance. That obligation lasts for approximately ten years, even if you divorce! That should make your U.S. friend think twice.

The final step in the process – and by now, several months have already gone by -- is for you to attend an interview, either with an overseas consular official or at a USCIS office. If you’re adjusting status in the U.S., your spouse will be expected to attend the interview as well. You’ll be expected to show up at the interview with lots of evidence that your marriage is the real thing: documents showing things like the birth of children, shared real estate, insurance, bank accounts, car ownership, and so on.

The interview also gives the immigration authorities an opportunity to ask you lots of probing and personal questions. Learn more about this in “What Happens at The Green Card Marriage Interview?

Let’s say that you got through the interview successfully, and you are awarded a green card. You’d take a look at it and notice that it has a two-year expiration date on it. That’s right, the hardest part would be yet ahead of you. Under U.S. immigration law, if your marriage is less than two years old at the time of your initial approval, you must go through another two-year testing period (called "conditional residence") before you get a permanent green card.

Even if you weren’t living together before, the immigration authorities will expect to see you sharing space now. And this is when things can get really tough for people committing fraudulent marriages. Every immigration attorney has heard stories of couples where one or both of them would bring home a boyfriend or girlfriend, run up debt, or otherwise get on the other person’s nerves. At the very least, the friendship is likely to suffer.

And at the end of that two-year period, you’d be expected to turn in another application (Form I-751), containing yet more evidence of your shared life, and both your signatures. If USCIS isn’t convinced by your application, then the two of you would be called in for another interview, and the whole fraud might be exposed.

The Immigration Authorities’ Investigative Powers

What's described above is the normal application process for a married couple, which doesn’t involve much actual contact with immigration officials. If the immigration authorities get suspicious, however, they have broad powers to investigate your case – visit your house, talk to your friends, and more.

An Immigration Attorney Will Not Help You Commit Marriage Fraud

Just to clarify, though we’ve mentioned attorneys hearing about marriage fraud cases, that’s not because they’ll help you with such an endeavor. Attorneys have an ethical obligation to not assist in a fraud. However, some of them find out the hard way, after representing a client who doesn't make it through the rigors of the application process, that it was a fraud all along.

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