One-Sided Marriage Fraud: Who Looks Out for the Citizen Victims?

By Dan Cadman on November 6, 2015

My colleague David North recently wrote a thought-provoking blog about American citizens who become victimized by what might fairly be called one-sided marriage frauds — marriages where they wed for love and don't realize that, from the alien spouse's point of view, it's a loveless marriage conceived of for the sole purpose of obtaining a green card.

There is a tendency on the part of the public, when they think about immigration marriages of convenience at all (which is almost never), to think of them in cutesy Hollywood terms, where it's innocent and victimless — think Gérard Depardieu and Andie MacDowell in the comedy "Green Card". As North has pointed out, the reality is often much darker. What's more, marriage fraud is a crime — a federal felony.

His blog has me thinking several decades back, to when I was a field criminal investigator (CI) with the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). CIs spent a significant amount of their time on what were then called "dual action" cases. These were cases where two separate but interrelated actions were pending: an adjudication of a document, such as the petition filed by U.S. citizens on behalf of their alien spouses; and a concurrent investigation, usually kicked off because of questions that arose during the adjudicative process, and that took precedence since those questions needed to be resolved before the examiner could arrive at the proper decision about the adjudication.

At least in my experience, the vast majority of dual action cases involved allegations of marriage fraud — sometimes a two-party fraud, where the alien paid a foolish citizen to file the paperwork; but often enough, the more tragic circumstance where citizens were romantically "taken", hook, line and sinker, into believing that they had found the loves of their lives, only to discover the harsh truth later.

It was a different time (the 70s and 80s). Adjudicators actually met with and interviewed petitioners and beneficiaries. The results of these interviews often formed the basis for the investigative referrals. Now everything is done remotely, and there isn't any real interface between government adjudicators and petitioners or applicants.

Back then, there was an immediacy to the work which meant that when things headed south for the citizen, there was someone available to listen and take action. Such cases were inevitably heartrending, but also sometimes shocking, because they involved disturbing evidence of psychological and physical abuse and domination. The memory of photos of beaten spouses, taken afterward by concerned parents or siblings, is with me still.

There was a time when abuse of alien spouses was no prettier a picture. Citizens, usually but not always men, went shopping for spouses like Christmas presents for themselves — sometimes in person, but often through sleazy "mail order bride" outfits — expecting demure and subservient mannequins instead of real people. The aliens would come hoping for the best, but prepared to steel themselves for the worst to gain the all-important prize of residency in the United States. They had to; there was precious little in the way of relief if the marriage failed, or they were abused along the way. For the aliens, times have changed. The Violence Against Women Act and other statutes have embedded within immigration laws many protections, so many that on occasion the most scheming aliens wed planning to later claim abuse and be rid of their unwanted citizen spouses because they can still get that green card. Further up the road, they re-wed and petition for their real spouses who are waiting patiently in the shadows. The present system of remotely bulk-processing petitions and applications is ill-suited to detect and cull such frauds from the immigration system given the massive numbers at play.

This brings us back to the citizen victims. For them, little has changed. In fact, it's gotten worse. Who do they turn to? The present "service center" processing model at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS, the agency that adjudicates immigration benefits) represents "efficiency" as long as one considers only through-put, but it is a fraud-ridden system in which egregious cases flow along buried in the volume, rarely getting sieved out for a second look.

What's more, single-scope marriage fraud cases are rarely investigated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents; they are looking for more "sexy" stuff like multi-party conspiracies. If it doesn't have headline-making possibilities, they don't much care because it isn't thought of as a part of their daily bread and butter. And because agents and adjudicators don't share office space, and aren't even in the same bureaucracy any longer, there is no routine method of pass-along referrals or informal dialogue between officers in which tips can reliably be relayed. Referral mechanisms are formal and clunky, and under this administration unlikely to happen in the first place since the prevailing benefits culture established by DHS leaders is "get to yes".

So my recommendation — really, the point of this posting — to citizens who have been abused and taken advantage of, and likely had their hearts broken, by aliens whose only interest was to obtain resident status through marriage fraud is the following: Start by writing a letter to the USCIS ombudsman. Understand up front that the very purpose of that office is to help aliens, not citizens, get what they want, but do it anyway. Be specific, credible, and detailed. If you have additional evidence — witness statements, police reports, even God forbid photos after you've been abused — provide them (copies, not the originals). Here is the address:

Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Washington, D.C. 20528-0180

Now here's the important part: Overtly cc both of your U.S. senators and your representative in the House on the letter, and be sure to send them copies of everything.

USCIS may not innately care enough to pay much credence to your concern, but it's more difficult to ignore concerns when they know your congressional representatives are involved. Officials in the USCIS ombudsman office (like the one that used to exist at ICE) may be there for one reason — to help aliens, not citizens — but that office must also be painfully aware that the ICE ombudsman office no longer exists because it paid no credence to citizen victims of criminal aliens, resulting in a budget rider (actually two of them) that eliminated the office. It's doubtful that USCIS would willingly tread down that path.

A final word: If you're one of those citizens who thought to buy yourself a Christmas present with a compliant spouse who wasn't adequately subservient for your tastes, don't be foolish enough to send a letter of complaint. You may not get the resolution you're hoping for.