Marriage Just for a Green Card? Legal and Procedural Problems

The perils of committing marriage fraud to get U.S. lawful permanent residence, even among friends.

By , J.D. · University of Washington School of Law

If you're a foreign-born person in the United States who would really like to stay here and get a green card (lawful permanent residence), but have no obvious pathway toward one, you might be thinking, "What about marrying a U.S. citizen?" You might even have kind-hearted U.S. friends who are willing to consider marrying you, even though you're not truly in love or intending to live together long-term. Unfortunately for such plans, even if no money changes hands, getting married without actually planning to form a life together, but mainly to gain U.S. lawful permanent residence, is considered marriage fraud under U.S. immigration laws.

Marriage fraud can expose both the foreign-born person and the U.S. citizen to serious legal and practical consequences, as discussed here.

What's Everyday Life Really Like After a Fraudulent Green-Card Marriage?

Let's talk about the practical consequences of entering into a false marriage to gain a green card. It might seem like an exciting idea to some. The U.S. citizen might even enjoy the sense of self-sacrifice that comes with thwarting the law on someone's behalf. But such sentiments often 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. U.S. 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.

Imagine, for instance, that after the marriage, the U.S. citizen falls in love with someone else and gets tired of carrying on this charade. Or that you two try to live together, but find yourself constantly arguing about things like who should pay various household expenses, to the point where you wish you could live thousands of miles apart. Or that a family member discovers the fraud and decides to report the matter to U.S. immigration authorities, leading to bad feelings that will last longer than the marriage was ever meant to. In the worst case, the U.S. citizen might assert their power over the immigrant, to the point of committing violence or abuse.

These are not only unpleasant situations, but can lead to both the immigrant and U.S. citizen getting caught and prosecuted.

What's the Normal Marriage-Based Green Card Application Process?

For starters, you have to get married. Sure, if you're already living in the United States, you could just go down to City Hall and take care of this, but U.S. 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 show you want to put on for your family and friends?

Next, the U.S. citizen husband or wife would have to file a petition on the immigrant's behalf (using USCIS Form I-130) and pay the (high) USCIS fee. You'd have to enclose a copy of your marriage certificate.

After that's approved, the rest of the application process would depend on whether the immigrant is living in the United States. If you are, and you entered legally or are in legal status), you might be able to "adjust status"—that is, apply for and get your green card without leaving. If you're overseas, you'd use the process called "Consular Processing." In either case, expect lots of fees, forms to fill out, and requests for documents, all leading up to a personal interview.

As a condition of the foreign-born person immigrating, the U.S. spouse would need to show evidence of sufficient income or assets to provide support. For details, see, How Much Financial Support Immigrants Need for a Family-Based Green Card. What's more, the U.S. spouse would have to sign an I-864 Affidavit of Support, which promises to repay the U.S. government if the immigrant ends up needing government assistance. That obligation lasts for approximately ten years, even if the couple divorces! That should make the U.S. citizen think twice.

In-Person Interview Requirement

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

The visa or adjustment interview also gives U.S. immigration authorities an opportunity to ask lots of probing and personal questions. Learn more in What Happens at The Green Card Marriage Interview?

Let's say that you get through the interview successfully, and the immigrant is awarded a green card. You take a look and notice that it has a two-year expiration date on it. You've now entered another part of the application process, discussed next.

Two Years of "Conditional" U.S. Residence

Under U.S. immigration law, if a marriage is less than two years old at the time of the government first approving the immigrant for lawful permanent residence or allowing them entry to the U.S. on an immigrant visa, the immigrant must go through a two-year testing period (called "conditional residence") before receiving a permanent green card.

Even if you weren't living together before, U.S. immigration authorities will expect to see you sharing space now. This is when things can get really tough for people committing fraudulent marriages, for the reasons discussed earlier.

At the end of that two-year period, the couple is expected to turn in another application (USCIS Form I-751), containing yet more evidence of a shared life, and both spouse's signatures. If USCIS isn't convinced by this application, then the two of you would be called in for another interview, and the whole fraud might be exposed.

How Far Do U.S. Immigration Authorities' Investigative Powers Go?

What's described above is the normal application process for a married couple. It doesn't involve much actual contact with U.S. immigration officials, other than the green card interview and, in rare cases, another interview when the immigrant asks to convert from conditional to permanent residence.

If U.S. immigration authorities get suspicious, however, they have broad powers to investigate a marriage-based green card case. They can visit your house, talk to your friends, and more. They can even do something called "bed checks," where they show up at the crack of dawn, enter your house, and look for evidence of who is (or was) sleeping where.

What Are the Legal Penalties for Marriage Fraud in the U.S.?

The most severe penalties are reserved for the big-time criminals, such as people running a business based on setting up fraudulent marriages for immigrants willing to pay big bucks. Nevertheless, more severe penalties are possible. And even a single instance of marriage fraud can result in the immigrant not only receiving an order of removal from the United States, but being barred from reentering for some years into the future.

What's more, a discovery that someone has lied on their immigration application could forever ruin their credibility with U.S. immigration officials. That will make it difficult if not impossible to ever apply for any U.S. immigration benefit such as a visa, even if it's only for a short visit to the United States.

An Immigration Attorney Will Not Help You Commit Marriage Fraud

Just to clarify, though we've mentioned attorneys who hear about marriage fraud cases, that's not because they'll help anyone with such an endeavor. Attorneys have a professional, ethical obligation to not assist in any form of fraud. They are likely to withdraw from your case if they see that they are risking their reputation. But if you're wrongly suspected of marriage fraud, definitely consult an experienced immigration attorney.

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