Marriage Fraud the Latest Front in the Immigration Battle
By Caitlin Webber, CQ Staff
The Congressional Quarterly (Washington, DC), December 22, 2008
With illegal immigration moving off the public policy front burner for the time being, advocacy groups have found a new subset of immigrants to argue about: those who marry Americans.
Aspiring immigrants are increasingly using sham marriages to circumvent immigration rules, according to a recent reportfrom the Center for Immigration Studies, and U.S. authorities are largely unable to stop them.
The CIS advocates lower immigration levels, both legal and illegal, so its admittedly largely anecdotal assessment of the threat posed by sham marriages fits with its agenda.
Immigrant advocates who put a premium on family reunification take issue with the CIS study and say marriage procedures are already too restrictive. They also make the case that an increase in marriages between Americans and foreigners is simply a natural result of growing global interconnectivity.
David Seminara, author of the CIS report and a former consular official, says marriage fraud does a disservice to other would-be immigrants, undermines the integrity of the immigration system and poses a threat to national security. He argues that the government should stiffen penalties for fraudulent nuptials and make it harder for foreigners to gain immigration benefits by marrying an American.
Over the last decade, marriage to American citizens, which entitles foreign spouses to immediate preference status for an immigrant visa, has been by far the most common path to American residency, Seminara writes in Hello, I Love You, Wont You Tell Me Your Name: Inside the Green Card Marriage Phenomenon.
Yet while there is endless debate about the quantity and type of workers we import, there is very little focus or discussion on the foreign spouses Americans bring to the country either through genuine relationships or fraudulent ones, the report says.
Immigrant advocacy groups point out that marriage fraud already has heavy consequences its a felony that carries up to a $250,000 fine and up to five years in prison. Perpetrators also can be charged with immigration fraud, obstruction of federal proceedings and conspiracy.
The real problem with marriage and immigration law and policy is how the government disrespects the marriages of U.S. citizens and legal immigrants who obey the rules, Paul Donnelly, spokesman for American Families United, which works to reunite Americans foreign spouses and children, said in an interview.
Legal permanent residents have to wait almost five years nearly eight years for Mexicans to bring a foreign-born spouse or child into the United States. Americans who marry foreigners that have overstayed prior visas or have been discovered in the country illegally cannot bring that spouse or child into the country for at least three years, with a maximum 10-year term of inadmissibility if the visa overstay is greater than one year or the foreigner is deported.
Donnelly said these rules have social and economic repercussions children growing up without knowing a parent, families breaking up, and years of remittances draining resources from the U.S. economy.
Slipping Through the Cracks
Seminara said in an interview that many immigrants see marrying an American as the easiest route to U.S. residency, particularly with recently ramped-up immigration enforcement actions, and they can launch marital schemes from abroad or inside the U.S.
Seminara says unscrupulous Americans are more than willing to exchange their hand in marriage for money.
Chris Rhatagian, spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Homeland Security Department agency that processes immigration applications, said in an interview that marriage fraud is a very lucrative business and we are aware that people are desperate to come to the U.S. and do desperate things. We scrutinize marriage requests and we look for trends, but we are not the marriage people, by any means.
And James Spero, deputy assistant director for critical infrastructure and fraud for Immigration and Customs Enforcements Office of Investigations, said in an interview that the number of marriage fraud cases over the last several years have held at a fairly steady number, I dont think that we have seen any great increase or decrease.
There were 238 criminal arrests and 198 convictions for marriage fraud in fiscal 2008, according to Cori Basset, ICE spokeswoman.
But Seminara thinks the problem is much bigger.
There is no way to get good statistics on [marriage fraud], Seminara said in an interview. Out of 100 marriage fraud cases, maybe 10 or 20 have a smoking gun, you can find proof, but its very hard to prove marriage fraud, even with incredibly improbable couples.
And he said many cases slip through the cracks, partially because consular officials dont have the authority to deny suspicious fianc or spouse petitions. They can only refer them to USCIS for secondary scrutiny.
In researching his report, Seminara interviewed currently deployed consular officials, some of whom said that up to 30 percent of the marriage petitions they encountered they believed to be fraudulent.
A Lot of Money Changes Hands
Marriage fraud can be two-sided in which both spouses are complicit in the deception, or one-sided, when one spouse dupes the other into marriage to get to the United States.
Less often, an American uses marriage to traffic a foreign spouse into the U.S. with nefarious intents these cases are handled by special human trafficking task forces.
ICE Document and Benefit Fraud Task Forces there are 11 nationwide focus their enforcement efforts on so-called marriage rings that facilitate fraudulent nuptials between two willing, and often compensated, participants.
We prioritize based on [marriage fraud] as an organization, we focus [enforcement] on trying to get the worst of the worst, Spero said. In the majority of cases we focus on the totality of the organization, we put them out of business and in doing so, uncover fraudulent marriages from the past.
Dawn Nelson, acting unit chief for identity and benefit fraud for ICEs Office of Investigations, said that marriage fraud rings arent dominated by certain nationalities.
Its not one size fits all. It runs the gamut, she said. Theres no one person we are looking for. But a common thread among organized scammers is that usually a lot of money changes hands. A wannabe immigrant could pay tens of thousands of dollars for facilitation with a fraudulent marriage.
ICE and USCIS believe cases of two-sided fraud are much more prevalent than scams where one spouse thinks the marriage is for love and the other just wants immigration status.
But Seminara said that, in his experience and that of his former colleagues, one-sided marriage fraud does happen. And regardless of consular officials suspicions, Seminara said the State Department standard is that if the American thinks [the marriage] is real, its real.
And after writing his report for CIS, Seminara said he was contacted by Americans seeking help with legal action against foreign-born spouses that they believe duped them to gain entry to the Unites States.
But after a marriage is recognized and a foreign-born spouse has received conditional legal permanent residency, it is very difficult to prosecute marriage fraud. Foreign-born spouses can receive waivers of the two-year marriage requirement if they claim to be victims of abuse.
Donnelly suggests that CIS is attempting to cast all marriages between an American and a foreigner as suspect.
Seminara rejects that accusation.
An American can marry whoever theyd like, he said. But its our national duty to screen applicants, and people are refused [entry to the U.S.] if they have criminal records or a health condition. You, as an American, do not have a birth-right to bring whoever youd like into the United States.
He puts forward an array of recommendations to prevent marriage fraud, including elimination of the fianc or K visa. Without this, an American could not legally bring foreigners to the U.S. to get married.
Americans who intend to marry foreign nationals are free to do so, but making the effort to get married abroad testifies to the legitimacy and seriousness of the relationship. Couples can always have a second ceremony or reception in the United States, Seminara writes.
Seminara also suggests a national marriage database to prevent serial fraud and says that consular officials should be empowered to rule on the legitimacy of relationships and deny marriage-based visa petitions.
He also recommends that foreigners should not be allowed to adjust short-term visa status inside the United States through marriage, and that petitioners who cant speak a common language should be denied marriage immigration benefits.
EDITORS NOTE: The CIS study, Hello, I Love You, Wont You Tell Me Your Name: Inside the Green Card Marriage Phenomenon, is available online at: http://www.cis.org/marriagefraud