Your biggest immigration mistake: Marriage fraud

With my experience as a Boston immigration lawyer, I know that many people in Boston and throughout Massachusetts mistakenly believe that marriage to someone with U.S. citizenship is a relatively easy and fast way of obtaining permanent residency or green card status and other immigration benefits.  Stop by City Hall in Boston, pick up your marriage certificate and you are automatically entitled to a green card.  And it is believed that once you get married, a work permit will arrive soon after you put your immigration petition in the mail.

Despite this persistent fantasy, a green card through marriage often proves to be difficult path.  For starters, it can be extraordinarily hard to convince U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) at the Boston District Office that your marriage is truly based on a real and bona fide relationship.  The immigration authorities will be expecting you to produce extensive documentary evidence that you and your spouse have a shared life that involves love and companionship and that your relationship is not just a sham to obtain permanent residency.  At a bare minimum, you can be sure that USCIS will scrutinize all Massachusetts public records to confirm that you and your spouse truly live together in marital union.

Once you get to an immigration interview at USCIS Boston District Office, you may encounter what is called a Stokes interview.  If this occurs, an immigration officer will interrogate you and your spouse separately with an identical set of probing, personal questions.  In this game, there are no wrong answers.  But if the answers that you and your spouse provide don't match, your immigration case will be denied.

Every so often, I'll have an initial immigration consultation in my office in Boston where the potential clients tell me, quite frankly, that their marriage is bogus and then try to enlist my help as an immigration lawyer with the marriage-based green card process.  This would be a kin to a criminal lawyer advising someone how to rob a bank!  Furthermore, aside from the obvious ethical considerations, an immigration petition based on a fake marriage is very unlikely to be approved by USCIS.  The reality is that I have enough difficulty getting USCIS to approve petitions based on marriages that are truly genuine.

Anyone thinking of trying to get a green card based on a fake marriage would do well to remember a line from Mickey Rourke's character in the film Body Heat, which I once heard paraphrased by a Boston Immigration Judge:  "when you commit a major crime, you got fifty ways you can screw up, and if you can think of 25 of them you're a genius, and, counselor, you ain't no genius."  No matter how smart you think you are, USCIS is smarter.  If you can come up with 15 ways to prove that your sham marriage is genuine, USCIS will probably be looking at dozens of other pieces of information, any one of which will blow your cover.

The likely result is that you'll get caught and your immigration application will be denied.  But a denial is not your only risk.  Marriage fraud is a specific ground for deportation.   It gets worse:  under the Immigration and Nationality Act, a fraudulent marriage finding may bar the approval of a subsequent immigrant visa petition.  To understand why this penalty is particularly harsh, let's imagine, for instance, that after the petition based on fraud is denied, the would-be immigrant gets divorced and remarried to another U.S. citizen.  This second marriage is a real marital relationship.  This couple continues to live together for 10 years in utter marital bliss and have 5 beautiful U.S. citizen children together.  In this scenario, the marriage fraud penalty would generally stop this person from ever obtaining a green card.  Immigration waivers for marriage fraud are extremely limited.

And it could be worse!  U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents investigate marriage fraud and prosecute U.S. citizens and foreign nationals for criminal violations.  Severe penalties for marriage fraud include sentences of up to 5 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine.

In short, when it comes to marriage fraud and a green card, the risk of getting caught is high and the punishment severe.  It's blatantly illegal.  And it's unethical.   For these and other reasons, my best advice as an immigration attorney is to steer clear of marriage fraud.