Immigration officials gird for rush to altar
By Brian Donohue
Published November 29, 2006
Some people marry for love. Others for companionship. Some for money.
And for a growing number of undocumented immigrants, marriage is for something else: a green card.
Federal immigration officials call it marriage fraud–the crime committed when foreign nationals marry U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents solely so their new spouses can sponsor them for legal permanent residency.
As the United States cracks down on illegal immigrants and tightens restrictions on other routes toward legal residency, federal immigration agencies are bracing for a wave of people marrying for a path to citizenship.
“A lot of people say, `I can't do anything through my employer, I can't legalize my status any other way, let me get married, it's the only way I can do it,”' said Robert Frank, a Newark, N.J., immigration attorney. “There is a certain percentage of people who are so desperate that they're going to do that. And that's going to grow.”
While Department of Homeland Security officials are stepping up efforts to tackle fraud, experts and even immigration officials concede that conniving couples often have the upper hand.
Perhaps no aspect of immigration enforcement, it seems, is tougher than proving two people are not really in love.
Immigration investigators and federal prosecutors have focused only on the large-scale fraud rings, allowing individual cheaters to walk away.
“It's hard to prove,” said Andrea Quarantillo, who heads the New York office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “The truth of the matter is, there is more work than we have staff for.”
A well-worn track
Getting married for a green card is nothing new.
Hollywood seized on the phenomenon in 1990 with the movie “Green Card,” about a couple who get married out of convenience, only to fall in love.
The majority of those filing marriage petitions are legitimately married, officials say. Doubtless, they add, thousands are scamming the system.
Officials are studying the extent of fraud. Previous studies of other benefit programs have found rampant abuse.
And a computer analysis of marriage benefit applications filed in 2000 found 25,000 potential marriage fraud cases among pending applications, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office, an arm of Congress that audits federal programs.
Immigration officers like Ernest DeStefano provide virtually the only level of defense.
A dozen times a day, the Newark-based officer pulls a file from a rotating roster, then calls a couple from the waiting room packed with scores of couples. For the next half-hour, he fires questions at them to determine whether their marriage is authentic.
Who woke up first this morning?
Where did you spend last Thanksgiving?
What are your in-laws' names?
“I asked one guy when he last spoke to his in-laws,” said DeStefano, a district adjudications officer at immigration services. “He told me a week ago. That was funny, because they'd been dead for four years.”
In some fraud cases, the sponsor is simply doing a favor for a friend. In others, the foreigner may have paid thousands of dollars to the spouse, who may be working for a fraud ring or just out to make some quick money.
In the saddest cases–and the toughest for agents to prove fraudulent–the foreigners have duped their spouses into thinking they're actually in love with them, just to get a green card.
“It can be heartbreaking sometimes,” said Anouchka Castro, supervisory immigration officer for immigration services in Newark. “You're sitting across the table from them, and you know one person is in it for real, and one person's in it for the green card.”
Some couples make their fraud obvious by trying a little too hard.
Castro recalls flipping through one couple's photo album: “On one page, there's a picture of the couple at the zoo. Then you turn the page and you've got full frontal nudity. There's a photo of both of them in bed and you're wondering, `Who took this picture?”'
Along with the answers to interview questions, investigators rely on a range of evidence to verify the couple share a “common life,” bank account or address.
It is dicey territory. Couples in arranged marriages, common in many cultures, cannot be expected to know many details because they may hardly know each other. In other cultures, household finances are kept in the husband's name.
“There's no recipe for what's a bona fide marriage,” Quarantillo said. “We respect the fact that there are different arrangements for people. What we're interested in is: Is this an arrangement that would come about if immigration was not an issue?”
Even when a case shows strong evidence of fraud, the system for punishing the cheaters is largely toothless, the Government Accountability Office found last year.
Over the past several years, authorities have busted large green-card marriage rings from coast to coast that made millions of dollars by providing spouses and fake documents to foreigners.
But those arrests were the rare exceptions. The GAO report found that few perpetrators of immigration fraud were prosecuted criminally. In addition, administrative sanctions such as fines or the threat of deportation “are not being used.”
Mike Cutler, a former immigration officer, described the situation as vastly different from the 1970s, when he and other agents were encouraged to put violators behind bars.
“In the '70s, if we found someone committed marriage fraud, the follow-up was, we went out and arrested them,” said Cutler, now a fellow with the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that advocates lower immigration levels.
“Now there's almost nobody out there knocking on doors. If they get away with it, they get a green card. If they get denied, nobody's looking for them. Where's the disincentive?”
Down the aisle toward citizenship
Marrying a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident is the single largest path toward citizenship.
Last year, 259,144 of the 1.1million legal immigrants admitted to the U.S. obtained their papers by marrying a U.S. citizen, up from 123,000 a decade ago. Tens of thousands more obtained legal status by marrying green-card holders, or legal permanent residents.
Since Congress toughened the law in 2001, only foreigners who enter the U.S. legally are eligible for marriage benefits. That includes visitors and guest workers holding valid visas and people who have overstayed their visas–a category that accounts for an estimated 40 percent of the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants.
— Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.