Divorce is one of the most stressful of human experiences possible, and it only gets worse when one spouse's immigration status is dependent upon the other, as is the case if the immigrant has "conditional resident" status. In other words, we're talking about a situation where a foreign-born person received an initial approval of U.S. residency based on marriage to a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, but because the marriage is relatively new, the immigrant's status will expire in two years unless the couple takes additional steps.
In the worst case, divorcing the U.S. citizen or resident can end the immigrant's right to move forward and obtain U.S. permanent residence. However, by learning about the relevant legal issues before the divorce is final, or at least before submitting all the required immigration paperwork to go from conditional to permanent residence, you might be able to avoid some of most serious possible problems.
Broadly speaking, U.S. immigration law requires that, in order to turn conditional residency into permanent residency based on marriage to a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, the immigrant must show that:
Both of these requirements can lead to problems for an immigrant in divorce proceedings who is still a conditional resident and who faces the challenge of applying for permanent residence before the two-year anniversary of approval for conditional resident status. This application needs to be done using Form I-751, a form that is normally prepared and signed jointly by both spouses, as a cooperative effort.
A divorce legally begins when one party files a petition for divorce in court. A divorce normally ends in one of two ways: Either the spouses come to an agreement (called a ‘Marital Settlement Agreement') on issues including splitting up assets and liabilities, amount of alimony, and child support and visitation; or the case goes before the judge during a hearing, and the judge issues an order saying that the spouses are legally divorced (called a ‘Divorce Decree').
In many, if not most, divorce proceedings where immigration status is at issue, the U.S. spouse adds "bad faith" to the grounds for divorce—in essence, swearing under oath, under penalty of perjury, that the marriage is fake and that the non-citizen spouse married in order to get a green card.
Many divorce attorneys add these grounds to their petitions for divorce as a matter of course, perhaps not even thinking about the immigration consequences for the non-citizen. And in the hostile atmosphere of most divorces, many spouses forget the good times, focus on the bad, and convince themselves that their spouse was only in it for the green card.
This problem often arises when the divorce is settled instead of proceeding to a court determination. Once the judge rules that this agreement is acceptable and enters it into the court record, and both parties enter the divorce into the state's official department of records, there is no way to undo the U.S. citizen spouse's allegation of bad faith post-settlement. (The exception would be if the U.S. spouse is prepared to go to prison for lying under oath.)
This problem can also arise if the divorce goes all the way to a court proceeding. If the U.S. citizen spouse alleged bad faith in the divorce petition, and is able to prove it to the court, the exact language in the divorce decree issued by the judge will become crucial to determining how the non-citizen's immigration matter will proceed. If the divorce decree specifically mentions that the marriage was made in bad faith, the non-citizen's chances for immigrating to the U.S. are practically nil.
The key thing to understand is that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will require a copy of either the divorce decree or marital settlement agreement as part of the non-citizen spouse's I-751 paperwork, and will take note of any allegation that the marriage was made in bad faith.
If you are an immigrant whose spouse alleged bad faith in your divorce petition, understand that such allegations, despite being sworn to, are not legally considered "facts." You can still present evidence to show that you entered into the marriage in good faith.
Having such allegations in your record does mean, however, that the spouse alleging the bad faith marriage will, practically speaking, not be able to provide any support for your application for permanent residence. Any such support would contradict what that person swore was true in the petition for divorce.
If your divorce isn't yet final, it might be better to avoid settlement and let the case proceed to trial, so that the court can issue a divorce decree. A spouse who alleged bad faith would therefore have to prove it in court before it would be entered into the divorce decree. If all goes well, the U.S. spouse will be unable to prove bad faith, and this won't have the potential to become an issue for the immigrant later.
The divorce decree must ultimately be submitted to U.S. immigration authorities along with the Form I-751 to remove the conditions on your residence, which you will also want to accompany with a request for a waiver of the requirement to file a joint petition.
If you finalize your divorce to a U.S. citizen while you're still a conditional resident, but still want a green card, you must submit to USCIS not only Form I-751, but a request for waiver of the usual requirement that you and your U.S. spouse file the I-751 jointly, with both signatures. This allows you to request that USCIS make your conditional residence into permanent residence without the support of your U.S. spouse.
You must accompany this request with the divorce decree or settlement, proof that the marriage was entered into in good faith, and a statement as to why you got divorced. (See Divorce and Your Conditional Residence Status: How to File a Divorce Waiver with Form I-751.)
Proof that the marriage was entered into in good faith (rather than fraudulently) is crucial to receiving USCIS approval of your permanent residence. What's more, because USCIS has discretion about whether or not to approve the I-751 waiver (in other words, the agency is not legally obligated to grant it), you might have to show not only good faith upon entry to the marriage, but also that it wasn't your (the non-citizen's) fault that the marriage failed.
The worst-case scenario would be one in which the U.S. citizen spouse was granted a divorce based on the non-citizen spouse's adultery or abandonment. A best-case scenario would be a no-fault divorce.
In either case, submitting proof that the couple attended marriage counseling can be a good way to show that the marriage was entered into in good faith, though that alone does not guarantee that your waiver request will be granted.
A final possibility is to ask for a waiver based on the hardship you would experience if denied permanent residence; which, technically speaking, doesn't require a showing of good faith marriage (though if actual marriage fraud is suspected, you're unlikely to get this waiver). See an attorney for help.
After you submit your Form I-751 and waiver request, USCIS will review it and issue you what's known as a Form I-797. This allows you to live and work in the U.S., and acts as your temporary green card while you await a final decision on your request for permanent residence.
Be sure to save copies of all the paperwork you submit to USCIS, and all the paperwork you receive from U.S. immigration authorities, and bring it to any scheduled interview.
An immigrant who has been married to and living with a U.S. citizen has to wait only three years after getting a green card to apply to become a naturalized citizen. After your divorce, however, you will no longer qualify for this exception, and will have to wait the usual five years before becoming a U.S. citizen. See When Can I Apply for U.S. Citizenship? for details.
If you file for divorce after going from conditional to permanent residence, the divorce will not change your immigration status directly. It will, however, force you to wait five years instead of three to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. (See Can I Apply for Citizenship If I've Divorced the Person Who Got Me My Green Card?)