Marriage Fraud a Growing Problem

By Jessica M. Vaughan on August 6, 2010

Today Fox News highlighted the persistent problem of marriage fraud in the immigration process, and invited me to discuss the implications (view the video segment below). Marriage is the most common way for a foreign national to gain permanent residency – more than 415,000 marriage-based green cards were issued last year, and the number has grown by more than 50 percent in the last few years. More than two-thirds of these individuals are already living in the United States at the time of their green card application.

While many of these marriages are perfectly legitimate, there is a lot of fraud, and little prosecution of it – so marriage to a U.S. citizen or to someone with other legal status is a very popular way for an illegal alien to launder his or her status. There are national security implications – a number of terrorists have obtained green cards and U.S. citizenship through marriage to a U.S. citizen, such as the Times Square bomber. Faisal Shazad's green card and citizenship application sailed through the process, even though some law enforcement agencies suspected he was possibly involved in terrorism.

While some legitimate applicants understandably may be intimidated by the process, in reality only a small share of marriage applicants are ever refused. Under the Obama administration, the agency that is responsible for approving the final applications for those already in the United States, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), has morphed from an impartial adjudicating agency to one that actively promotes and facilitates immigration in all its forms (see my colleague David North's observations on a recent leaked memo). What this means is that the career staff who review the cases (adjudicators) are discouraged from turning down applicants, and have very little time to review them at all. So most fraudulent applicants will never be detected, and even if detected, most fraud is not prosecuted.

My colleague David Seminara has outlined the types of green card marriage fraud in a CIS Backgrounder. Sometimes the foreigner pretends to love the American, and then divorces him or her soon after getting the green card. Other times, the U.S. citizen does it for the money, or in a misguided effort to "help a nice immigrant stay here." Often, you see the "I do, I don't, I do" phenomenon, where the foreigner will divorce his spouse back home and then marry an American, and then get another divorce in order to re-marry and sponsor his former spouse. Sometimes there is heartbreaking exploitation – when Americans or legal residents deliberately sponsor naive individuals or children to take advantage of them, or sell them as slaves.

The biggest problem in fighting green card marriage fraud is that it can be difficult to detect someone's intentions – the U.S. citizens might not suspect they are being used. But sometimes it is obvious. You would be surprised how many cases are approved when the couple do not even share a common language. And it is not unusual for people who are deported once, especially criminals, or about to get deported, suddenly find love as a way to try to get back in the country or to stave off deportation.

Dave Seminara's paper includes a list of recommendations for how the U.S. government could deter marriage fraud – more prosecutions, interviewing all applicants in their home countries (and requiring the U.S. spouse to be present at that interview), denying applications where the couple share no common language, barring individuals under the age of 21 from sponsoring a foreign spouse, increase the income requirement to sponsor a spouse (if people are on public assistance or earning below poverty level, they should not be allowed to bring in a foreign spouse).