Experts Warn Immigrants Against ‘Marriage Of Convenience’
by Edwin Martinez
President-elect Donald Trump’s threats to deport mil- lions of undocumented peo- ple have caused such alarm that some are looking for a way to legalize their status to remain in the country by any means. “Marriages of convenience” would seem to be a quick option for many in their desperation, but if they are caught they may be putting an end to their American dream forever and risking landing in jail in the process. This is something that José R. (*), a 32-year-old Mexican who has lived in New York since 2003 understands very well. He admits that the op- tion to pay an acquaintance $20,000 to marry him before Trump reaches the White House is on his mind day and night. He has already found out that, because he came to the United States with a visa and did not cross the border, he qualifies for a “forgiveness” process, which would allow him to obtain legal papers.
“I know it’s not legal, I know it’s a lot of money and that, if I get caught, I might get de- ported, but right now I am so afraid that Trump will send us all back that I feel that, now that a friend who is a citizen has offered to help me, I should take a chance before things get worse,” said the cook, who has two small chil- dren and a partner, all undoc- umented.
“I think that, if I do it well and make sure to take care of all the details and things turn out fine, in less than one year I could have my papers and end this agony for me and my children. It is horrible to feel that they may kick us out at any moment,” he added. Although the Mexico native says that he has no ill intentions and that he is a hard- working, good man with no criminal background, the Im- migration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) has warned that the authorities do not see fraudulent marriage as a harmless act, and that they prosecute it forcefully. “Marriage fraud is not a victimless, innocent crime. It is a serious crime that weakens our nation and makes us less safe. Participating in marriage fraud can result in imprisonment of up to five years for those involved,” states the agency, making it clear that the action will also signify legal problems for the citizen or resident who marries someone out of convenience. “…The crime of marriage fraud is anything but a trivial matter. Engaging in this fraud and trading America’s security for financial gain is a felony with serious criminal penalties and consequences,” adds ICE. The agency has a campaign against these unions in which it states: “If you walk down the aisle for the wrong reasons, you could end up walking down this aisle,” showing a photo of a prison hallway.
Natalie Renta, an immigration attorney with Make the Road New York, clarified that most people who turn to marriage to adjust their immigration status do it in a legitimate manner, but warned anyone planning to marry for illegitimate reasons that it is a bad idea because they will be committing a crime.
“Many people obtain their residency based on real marriages, and they qualify for it, and they should continue to do so. But it is not news that immigration is aware of the possibility of fraud in some marriages,” said the lawyer, explaining that the process through which the agency determines if a marriage is real is quite rigorous, and that the applicants must present evidence such as rental agree- ments, joint bank accounts, travel photographs, letters from different people, and must also pass an interview. “If there is suspicion that the marriage is not legitimate, there is a second more in- depth interview, during which the two persons are inter- viewed separately and, if im- migration determines that the marriage is not real, the appli- cant may be put in a deporta- tion process for fraud,” she said. “These people, who had no problems up until that mo- ment, would then be putting themselves at risk. Had they not gone through with it, they would have been able to stay here without immigration starting a process on them. It is not as simple as marrying a foreigner and getting your papers right away.”
The attorney commented that the verification process ICE carries out to verify mar- riages are so strict that, even clients with legitimate mar- riages have not been given their papers quickly, have been asked to submit more information and even been put under suspicion. Colombia native Carlos R. (*) says that it is worth the risk. He has also thought about the possibility of mar- rying a coworker born in the United States who will not charge him for the “favor” and who criticizes the gov- ernment’s inaction regarding immigration reform.
“After Reagan, governments have done nothing to legalize the people who are already here. If we are already work- ing with fake papers, what do we have to lose in trying?” he said. Understanding that some people feel this way, the Make the Road New York lawyer has an explanation. “Working unauthorized and marrying for papers are two vastly different things. Work- ing is not a charge that immi- gration may deport someone for, even though it may be- come an obstacle to obtaining residency in some cases. Marrying for papers and lying to ICE regarding a rela- tionship that does not exist is completely different because it constitutes fraud against the immigration system,” she said. “The most important thing is to get an appointment with trustworthy lawyers to find out what relief is available and if you qualify for anything. If someone can apply for residency through marriage in a legitimate manner, it is fine if they do it but, if it is not real, then it is a mistake,” cautioned the attorney. Immigration authorities say that people who are caught engaging in fake marriages face federal felony charges including up to five years in prison, up to $250,000 in fines – both for the foreigner and for the citizen perpetrating the crime – and the total loss of the applicant’s bene- fits for life. Additionally, people accused of marriage fraud may also face additional charges for visa fraud, con- spiracy and making false statements, each charge carrying additional sentences. A spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) said that the process to apply for residency by marriage currently takes seven months, and that the agency’s most recent statistics show that 131,069 people were able to adjust their status within a year. Of them, 34,535 did so through the IR6 (spouse of a U.S. citizen) category and 96,534 adjusted their status through marriage under the CR6 (conditional residency) category.
(*) Names have been changed at the request of interviewees.
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