What Is Marriage Fraud Under U.S. Immigration Law?

A sham marriage is one that is entered into in order to get around U.S. immigration laws.

By , J.D. University of Washington School of Law
Updated 7/11/2024

If you are considering entering into a fake ("sham") marriage as a means of getting U.S. lawful permanent residence (a green card), you probably already know that what you are planning is illegal. This article is not going to give you any special tips on making a fraudulent marriage look real. However, this article will:

  • explain what constitutes a real marriage under U.S. immigration law
  • outline the risks of entering into a fake marriage, and
  • discuss how the U.S. government catches people who attempt marriage fraud.

Definition of Marriage Fraud in U.S. Immigration Law

A sham marriage is one that is entered into in order to get around ("evade") U.S. immigration laws. (See I.N.A. Section 204(c).)

For a marriage to be valid under U.S. law, it is not enough that the couple had a real marriage ceremony and got all the right governmental stamps on their marriage certificate. They have to intend to live in a real marital relationship, namely to establish a life together, following the marriage ceremony—and they must prove their intention through their actions. If the couple doesn't intend to establish a life together, their marriage is a sham.

Another way in which an immigration application based on marriage will be considered fraudulent is if it isn't legally valid. Say, for example, that you are already married to another person, and were never able to get a legal divorce. Even if you truly love your new spouse, this current marriage is invalid. Applying for U.S. lawful permanent residence (a green card) on the basis of an invalid marriage is, indeed, considered fraudulent. Even if you get away with it in the short term, your green card and eventual U.S. citizenship could be taken away on the basis of this fraud.

What the U.S. Government Expects a Real Marriage to Look Like

What is the U.S. government's view of a typical marriage? The statutes and regulations don't go into detail on this, so the following comes from a combination of court cases and attorneys' experiences. You certainly are not required to match every description on this listbut the fewer you match, the greater the likelihood that you will face lots of questions and close scrutiny of your application.

The "normal" married couple has a fair amount in common. They share a language and religion. They live together and do things together, like take vacations, celebrate important events, birthdays, and holidays, join clubs or gyms, and have sex and children.

Typical couples also combine financial and other aspects of their lives after marriage. They demonstrate their trust in one another by sharing bank and credit card accounts and ownership of property, such as cars and houses. They celebrate each others' birthdays and meet each others' families.

And they might even have arguments and marital problems. Ideally, they will visit a counselor or other trusted adviser to help work these out (and these visits themselves can become evidence of a valid marriage).

Typical Types of Marriage Fraud Arrangements

Marriage fraud can play out in any of a number of ways. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) points to these three main types:

  • When a foreign national asks a U.S. citizen to marry and sponsor them, either as a favor or for money.
  • A "mail-order marriage," in which either the U.S. citizen or the foreign national who lives overseas knows it is a fraud, and
  • When a foreign national defrauds a U.S. citizen into marrying them, believing that their relationship is the real thing and the marriage is legitimate.

Also, while this article mainly talks about marriages to U.S. citizens, which directly lead to green card eligibility, it's also possible for foreign nationals to enter into fraudulent marriages with fellow foreign nationals who are in line for a U.S. green card. If, for example, a foreign national married a diversity visa lottery winner or an asylum applicant in hopes of gaining U.S. residence as their derivative family member, that too would be considered fraud.

High Level of U.S. Government Suspicion Regarding Marriage Fraud

Detecting marriage frauds is a top priority for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and its affiliated agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Based on a decades-old survey, government officers still sometimes say that up to 30% of marriages between aliens and U.S. citizens are suspect. That statistic has been shown to be deeply flawed, but its legacy lives on.

How the U.S. Government Detects Marriage Fraud

To detect frauds, U.S. immigration authorities require a lot of proof that a marriage is real, including demanding more documentation than they do from other family-based immigrant visa applicants. Applicants must prove that they share their lives by providing copies of such documents as rental agreements, bank account statements, children's birth certificates, records of mail sent to both of them, and so on.

The government further tests the validity of the marriage by talking to the immigrant applicant and usually to the U.S. spouse at either their visa interview (held at a U.S. consulate) or green card interview (held at a USCIS office, for applicants who are adjusting status in the U.S.). They subject marriage-based immigrants to a longer and more detailed personal interview than other any other type of applicant typically goes through,

The U.S. government will not normally follow a couple around town or investigate their life beyond reviewing the required paperwork and conducting the regular interviews. But it has the power to do so if it sees grounds for suspicion. Inspectors can visit your home unannounced, talk to your friends, interview your employers, and so on.

By requiring more of married couples than of other immigrant applicants, the U.S. government has set up a system that gives it a lot of information about whether a marriage is the real thing or not. U.S. immigration officials have developed amazing talents for discovering fraud by examining what look like insignificant details of people's lives. To ferret out lies, they have learned to cross-check dates and facts within the application forms and between the application forms and people's testimony.

Second, "Stokes" Interview Required of Some Couples During Green Card Application Process

If the first immigration interview with the consular officer or USCIS officer doesn't go well, they may hold a second one, sometimes immediately. The would-be immigrant and spouse are separated and asked the same set of questions, after which their questions are compared. A few minor discrepancies won't necessarily be fatal, for example if the husband says that 200 people attended the wedding and the wife says 250. But if, for instance, the husband declares that they always spend his birthday on the beach but the wife says they always go to the mountains, they might have a problem.

(Learn more about what happens during an immigration marriage fraud interview.)

People who enter into sham marriages most often trip themselves up just trying to get through the standard process. They might have thought that a fake marriage was going to be easier to get away with than it really is. Trying to live with someone when it's only a business arrangement, but one that you have to hide from friends and family, can lead to stress, arguments, and sometimes the U.S. citizen's urge to report the immigrant to the authorities. (See, for example, What Should I Do If I Believe I'm a Victim of Immigration Marriage Fraud?.)

Even After Initial Green Card Approval, Newer Couples Must Go Through Two-Year Testing Period

As if the above weren't enough, the law has created a two-year testing period for couples who have been married less than two years when their green card is approved or when they enter the U.S. on their immigrant visa. This is called "conditional residence." Close to the end of that time period, they must submit an application (Form I-751) signed by both members of the couple and proving once again that the marriage is bona fide and ongoing. They will need to provide more documentation of their shared life, covering only the two-year period since their approval.

Those who fail to get through this part of the process can face monetary and criminal penalties, potentially including both denial of their immigration applicants and possible criminal prosecution for fraud (for both the U.S. spouse and the intending immigrant).

For More Information

Learn more about the consequences in Penalties for Committing Immigration Marriage Fraud, and consult an experienced immigration attorney if you have questions about your immigration case.

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