Marriage fraud is the term used to describe when a foreign-born person marries a U.S. citizen or, less commonly, a lawful permanent resident, for the sole or primary purpose of getting a green card (U.S. lawful permanent residence). These marriages are not "bona fide." They are the opposite of ones entered into for love or family purposes.
Such frauds are taken very seriously by U.S. immigration authorities. If the fraud is discovered, the immigrant could face severe immigration consequences, and both halves of the marrying couple may face criminal penalties. Hundreds of marriage frauds are uncovered every year.
An immigrant who is found to have committed marriage fraud would likely be put into deportation proceedings and then removed from the United States (deported) and their current visa (if any) would be revoked. In addition, the fraud would destroy the person's future eligibility for a U.S visa or green card.
And then we get to the possible criminal penalties. Here's what the law says:
Any individual who knowingly enters into a marriage for the purpose of evading any provision of the immigration laws shall be imprisoned for not more than five years, or fined not more than $250,000, or both.
The above comes from Section 275(c) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.), or 8 U.S.C. Section 1325.
Discovery of an immigrant's involvement in a marriage fraud might happen at any of various phases of the immigration process. For example, U.S. immigration authorities will demand proof of the validity of the marriage (and ask personal questions of the immigrant and spouse) as part of the initial application for the green card. They will, in many cases, ask again two years later. That's what happens when immigrants whose marriages were still recent when they applied for U.S. residence (less than two years old at that time) must apply to convert from conditional to permanent residence.
U.S. immigration authorities can even take another look at the marriage when the immigrant later applies for U.S. citizenship, or after U.S. citizenship has been granted, to see whether it should be revoked.
The bottom line: There is almost no point at which an immigrant committing marriage fraud is completely safe from discovery and subsequent deportation.
Note also that the immigration authorities have broad investigative powers when it comes to discovering marriage frauds. Not only can they demand submission of documents, and subject the immigrant and spouse to intensive questioning during the application process, but they can visit the couple's home, talk to their friends, interview their employers, and more.
The U.S. spouse could face substantial fines and even jail time if convicted of the crime of committing marriage fraud.
The most severe penalties are usually applied to those who engage in conspiracy operations, such as systematically arranging fraudulent marriage. But that doesn't mean that an individual who enters into a fraudulent marriage won't also be punished.
If the spouse is only a U.S. permanent resident, not a citizen, he or she might be placed into removal proceedings and ultimately deported.
If you have been or might be accused of any type of marriage immigration fraud, you will need the experienced assistance and guidance of an immigration lawyer as well as a criminal lawyer.
Note, however, that it is not the lawyer's job to help you perpetrate a fraud. The lawyer will not reveal what you have told him or her in confidence, but nor can the lawyer lie on your behalf.