What's a Little Marriage Fraud Between Amigos?

It's a felony, sure, but in the absence of real immigration reform, some young, assimilated illegal immigrants see it as their best path to citizenship

“He’s a sweet guy—how can I not help him?” she now says. “He’s like a brother. It’ll be easy.”

Juan laughs nervously. Two of his friends pulled off a fake marriage, but it ended up ruining their relationship.

Roberto and Roberta first met in the same social circles of work, though from different strata. She was a secretary for a law firm, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who had succeeded in this country; he was a janitor who cleaned the offices of Roberta’s company. After months of friendly chitchat, he gathered the nerve to ask Roberta on a date. It turned into a brief, passionate, stormy relationship. The main problem: Her parents didn’t approve.

Doug Boehm
Doug Boehm

“They try to portray themselves as liberals, but they’re as prejudiced as Minutemen,” Roberta says with a dejected, disgusted tone. “Flat-out, they didn’t like that he was poor and dark-skinned.”

Their fling didn’t last, but Roberta wanted to help Roberto with his legal status. His case was simpler than most: Though an illegal immigrant, his family had come to the United States from Mexico City on a visa when he was 7 and just never left. U.S. immigration law allows such illegal immigrants to remain in the country after they get married and start the process to legalize their status.

Besides, Roberto offered to pay all of Roberta’s bills during their marriage. But she remained skeptical. “I sat down with him,” she says, “and told Roberto, ‘I want you to know that our past is the past. If something happens in the future, it happens. But let’s keep things in check. Let’s approach this like a job.’”

They married in 2002, both of them just 20 years old, and only had to go through one interview, with no follow-up investigation. Living together rekindled their passion, but it only lasted a couple of months. He continued to love her; she moved on. But Roberto wouldn’t take the message. “He became jealous and possessive—I couldn’t even go out with friends, let alone find someone I truly liked,” she says. “But at the same time, I couldn’t get too angry at him because I made a commitment to help him. He’s a good guy, and I’m glad I helped him out, but it was a nightmare for me.”

When she asked him to formally divorce her so she could move on with her life, he refused. It took $2,000 to convince him otherwise.

They finally divorced last year. Roberta hasn’t spoken with him since.

*     *     *

For immigrants in Orange County trying to attain their green cards through marriage, interviews take place at the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) field office in Santa Ana’s Civic Center. USCIS’s District 23 covers Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. Approximately 200 immigration officers work the area—home to one of the largest concentrations of immigrants (legal and illegal) in the United States—trying to detect immigration fraud of all kinds.

Chief of staff for District 23 is Martha Flores, who has worked with USCIS since 1982. She seems like a kind woman, and she is quoted often in Southern California newspapers after swearing-in ceremonies for new American citizens. But ask her about illegal immigrants and marriage, and she’s matter-of-fact.

“If they want to adjust their status, they have to have had a legal entry into this country,” says Flores, who works out of USCIS’s district headquarters in Los Angeles. “If they [came on a visa that expired], they can adjust it here. If they entered this country illegally—well, they’re not supposed to be here, and if they fell head over heels in love, they have to go back to their own country, and they have to do the visa process abroad like everyone else.”

Illegal immigrants who get married and want to become legal residents must file two forms with USCIS: Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status, and Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative. After their submittal (and payment of fees of $355 for the former, more than $1,000 for the latter) and subsequent review by immigration officers, couples must go through a follow-up interview. Commonly called a Stokes interview, after the 1975 fraud case Stokes v. INS, couples answer questions posed by an investigator to determine whether this is a legitimate marriage or one of convenience.

All immigration officers are trained in the Byzantine clauses of immigration law, in fraud detection and in how to ask the right questions during the all-important interview with couples. But Flores—who conducted such interviews for nearly a decade—says USCIS has no set guidelines for agents to determine what questions to ask or physical tics to note.

She scoffs at the idea that immigration officers will target anyone who appears jittery during the interview. “Most anyone who comes to a federal office for something so important, they’ll be nervous. When I go to the DMV, I’m nervous. But it depends. It depends on how the interview is going,” Flores says. “It depends on the officer, and then we make a determination at that point whether we’re convinced. If there’s no other problem with the case, then we’ll approve it. But we see so many cases, so it’s hard to pinpoint a specific [warning flag that pertains to all couples].”

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