Under U.S. immigration law, any marriage entered into for the purposes of getting one person a green card (U.S. lawful permanent residence), as opposed to for the purpose of establishing a life together, is a sham, or fraudulent.
It doesn’t matter what the exact arrangement was between the couple. Some commentators distinguish, for example, between “contractual” and “unilateral” marriage fraud – but both are illegal.
People caught entering into a fraudulent marriage face both criminal penalties and (in the case of the immigrant) denial or revocation of the U.S. green card, plus difficulty in obtaining any future U.S. immigration benefit.
The U.S. government does not keep statistics on how many green cards it rejects each year due to marriage fraud. However, given that it must decide on about 300,000 applications for green cards for the spouses of U.S. citizens, it’s safe to say that it encounters various forms of fraud on a regular basis, and keeps a sharp eye out for further fraud.
The usual form of a sham marriage is through contractual fraud. This means that both people in the couple know and agree from the very beginning that they aren’t truly in love or wishing to spend their lives together. The only purpose of their planned marriage is to get lawful immigration status for the foreign-born spouse. The U.S. spouse agrees to participate in filing the paperwork, in some cases to live together, and to attend any needed interviews with the immigration authorities. They also agree that the marriage will end once the immigrant successfully obtains U.S. permanent residence.
Contractual marriage fraud may involve a payment by the immigrant to the U.S. citizen or resident – word has it, up to around $20,000 -- but not always. Sometimes a U.S. citizen (or permanent resident) may agree to contractual marriage fraud out of sympathy for a friend or acquaintance who would otherwise be deported. Sometimes the U.S. citizen actually wants to obtain immigration rights in the immigrant’s home country, in a sort of quid pro quo exchange. Still others use marriage as a means of getting someone back into the U.S. after deportation.
Less common is what is called unilateral marriage fraud. This means that a foreign national deceives a U.S. citizen or permanent resident into marriage, pretending it is the real thing, but all the time planning to leave the spouse once having received a U.S. green card.
In such a case, the immigrant is unlikely to pay anything to the U.S. spouse (for obvious reasons – this would undermine the pretense). However, this type of marriage is considered fraudulent nonetheless.
The U.S. spouse typically finds out about a unilateral marriage fraud only after the immigrant receives the green card, and then takes off – if the marriage lasts that long. Maintaining a deception for the years it often takes to get a green card can be a challenge for even the most motivated of con artists, and some of these marriages end in abuse, financial disagreements, and so forth. Sometimes the U.S. spouse discovers that the foreign-born one actually has a spouse and/or children in another country.
If you are considering entering into a marriage between a foreign national and a U.S. citizen, and are worried about whether the marriage will be considered valid, consult an experienced U.S. immigration attorney. Obviously, an attorney cannot ethically help you deceive immigration officials, but he or she can help you document your "bona fide" marriage and help you get a green card. Avoiding mistakes during the process will help smooth the route to the immigration benefit you're looking for.