Penalties for Committing Immigration Marriage Fraud

Criminal and immigration penalties faced by perpetrators of marriage fraud by green-card seekers and their U.S. sponsors.

By , J.D. · University of Washington School of Law

The crime of immigration marriage fraud can take several forms, though all with the underlying attempt to obtain a spousal green card (U.S. lawful permanent residence) for a foreign national. For example, the would-be immigrant might pay a U.S. citizen to marry or offer to perform a favor in exchange for marrying. Or there are "mail-order" marriages, where the couple have no preexisting relationship and either or both know the marriage is a fraud. Sometimes an immigrant defrauds a U.S. citizen who believes the marriage is legitimate, while the immigrant knows it is not.

Here, we'll look at:

  • what penalties the U.S. legal system has put into place for those who are caught perpetrating immigration marriage fraud, and
  • the likelihood that a marriage fraud case will be prosecuted.

How U.S. Federal Law Punishes Marriage Fraud

The law pretty much speaks for itself on what can happen to immigrants who commit marriage fraud. The relevant statute (Immigration and Nationality Act § 275(c); 8 U.S. Code § 1325(c)) says that perpetrators can face prison, a fine, or both, as follows:

Any individual who knowingly enters into a marriage for the purpose of evading any provision of the immigration laws shall be imprisoned for not more than 5 years, or fined not more than $250,000, or both.

People charged with marriage fraud can also be charged under federal law with related crimes such as visa fraud, harboring an alien, conspiracy, or making false statements. Each such charge carries the possibility of additional prison sentences and financial penalties.

Will the Penalties Be Enforced in a Particular Marriage Fraud Case?

The extent to which the above-mentioned penalties will actually be applied depends on the specifics of each couple's case. The U.S. government tends to reserve the highest penalties for U.S. citizens or residents who are engaged in major conspiracy operations, such as systematically arranging fraudulent marriages for a profit. For example, in 2022, 11 people in California were charged with operating an "agency" that arranged hundreds of sham marriages, and ordered to appear in federal court. And in a major law enforcement action in 2019, close to 100 people were criminally charged.

But that doesn't mean small-time participants in marriage fraud can count on a soft punishment. Ferreting out fake marriages is a top enforcement priority of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Even if the immigrants themselves are not prosecuted criminally, they will in all likelihood simply be deported (removed) from the United States and never allowed to return—not even if they later enter into a real marriage with a U.S. citizen.

Getting Legal Help

If you are seeking a marriage-based immigrant visa or green card and want to make sure it doesn't raise questions about marriage fraud, hiring an experienced U.S. immigration attorney is your best bet. This could be especially important if red flags are present in your case, such as a big age difference or lack of shared language. The attorney can be helpful with some of the basics, too, like filling out forms, organizing the paperwork, and helping your overcome any other issues in your case.

And if U.S. immigration authorities allege marriage fraud in your case, definitely seek skilled legal help.

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