The Virus May Be Reducing Marriage-Related Immigration Fraud

By David North and Kathleen Sharkey on May 13, 2021

The consequences of immigrant admissions — generally speaking — include a range of the good, the indifferent, and the bad.

But there is one small category of admissions that includes nothing but failures, a category that the Department of Homeland Security never mentions, in administration after administration, and never seems to do anything about. But we may see, at least momentarily, a drop in them.

These are the 3,000-5,000 applications approved each year bearing the gentle term of “self-petitioning spouses”.

The immigration law is heavily tilted toward admitting alien newlyweds; in the last year for which we have data (FY 2019), 1,031,765 new permanent resident aliens were counted. Of these, fully 29.9 percent were admitted because they are married to U.S. citizens or to green card holders, with the former outnumbering the latter by about nine to one.

Within the newlyweds category, there is a troubling subset accounting for about 1.5 percent of the marriages. These relate to aliens whose marriages have collapsed, or were never genuine love matches in the first place. Routinely, the new alien spouse is sponsored for immigration by his or her resident partner. In cases where the marriage no longer operates, the alien may charge abuse and, under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), file a petition on her (or his) own behalf, thus the term “self-petitioning” alien.

The VAWA includes all sorts of provisions that help aliens making marginal claims of abuse; that the alien may have committed fraud, for instance, does not matter.

In each of these VAWA cases, the marriage has failed; either the resident spouse has, in fact, abused the alien spouse, or the alien has made false claims of such abuse (which can be devastating to the citizen). Under the INA, in either case the alien can be admitted, and DHS makes little effort to sort out the facts, and routinely grants the alien’s petition, usually without permitting the alleged abuser to testify (see here and here).

These marriages often follow the issuance of a K-1 or fiancée visa; this is the visa used by couples who want to be married, but the resident will not fly to the other’s country for the marriage, nor can or will the alien enter the U.S. This lack of commitment on the part of the couple, in my eyes, should make these visas hard to come by, but that is not the case.

So where, proportionately, do those carrying K-1 visas come from? And what are the trends in their issuances?

Table 1 shows the absolute and proportional issuances of these visas, and that requires some explanation.

Table 1. Issuances of K-1 Visas vs.
All Nonimmigrant Visas, FY 2020

Country Number of
K-1 Visas
Issued in
FY 2020

Number of Nonimmigrant
Visas Issued
in FY 2020

K-1 Visas as Pct.
of All Nonimmigrant
Visas Issued
in the Nation
Philippines 3,069 121,687 2.52%
Mexico 1,005 960,095 0.11%
Vietnam 861 67,906 1.27%
Dominican Republic 546 61,102 0.89%
Great Britain and Northern Ireland 488 40,695 1.20%
Colombia 470 97,238 0.48%
Canada 461 5,419 8.51%
Brazil 431 242,211 0.18%
India 413 499,213 0.08%
Haiti 374 11,782 3.17%
Ukraine 357 29,510 1.21%
Thailand 343 24,918 1.38%
China-mainland 284 316,450 0.09%
Nigeria 278 32,787 0.85%
Russia 277 85,290 0.33%
Cuba 259 2,618 9.89%
Iran 245 2,182 11.23%
Laos 206 869 23.71%
Rest of World 6,482 1,411,238 0.46%
Total 16,849 4,013,210 0.42%

Source: U.S. Department of State.

The Philippines, a hotbed of apparently fraudulent VAWA marriages, as is well known, led the world in the total number of K-1 visas issued in 2020, with 3,069 of them.

There were unusually high percentages of K-1 visas to all visas in Great Britain and Canada, but these numbers are misleading. These are the only two nations on the list with visa-waiver agreements with the U.S., so most residents can come to the U.S. without a visa and not many visas are issued by our consulates, so those seeking K-1s are a larger portion of a much smaller subset.

Laos, which leads the world with its proportion of K-1 visas to all visas, has a troubling history, as we have mentioned before, of elderly Lao men (mostly refugees) now in the U.S. dumping their long-time spouses to marry young girls from Lao villages, using the K-1 visas to bring their brides to this country. Apparently, the State Department regards it as non-diplomatic to discourage such practices.

I am not sure why the K-1 visas are so significant in Iran and Cuba, two places with which we have long had difficult relations.

As to the overall frequency of such issuances, Table 2 indicates that in FY 2020 there was a sharp dip in the production of new K-1 visas because of the Trump administration’s cut-back in the issuance of non-essential visas in the light of the virus, and the fact that K-1s were not considered essential. We do not have numbers yet for self-petitions in that year.

Table 2. Number of K-1 Visas Issued vs.
Grants of Status to Self-petitioning Spouses

  FY 2016 FY 2017 FY 2018 FY 2019 FY 2020
Number of K-1
Visas Issued
38,403 34,797 24,675 35,881 16,849
Self-Petitioning Spouse
Grants of Green Cards
4,498 3,920 3,577 4,251 N/A

Sources: For number of K-1 visas issued: U.S. Department of State; for
self-petitioning spouse grants of green cards: Table 7 of the Yearbooks
of Immigration Statistics.

There is a time lag between the issuance of a K-1 visa and, in some cases, the collapse of the marriage, so that the dip in K-1s in 2020, may not be reflected in green cards for self-petitioning spouses for another year or so.

Will such a dip reflect a genuine and continuing drop in this category, or will it bounce right back under the Biden administration?