When U.S. lawful permanent residents (LPRs) apply for naturalized U.S. citizenship, they have to fill out Form N-400, and answer many questions about marital history. This is partly to find out whether the LPRs are committing bigamy (being legally married to two people at the same time) or are believers in polygamy (multiple marriages). Both bigamy and polygamy can bar green card holders from being approved for U.S. citizenship. We'll discuss both the problem and potential solutions here.
Let's take, by way of example, the situation of a woman who has learned that her husband, a U.S. citizen who sponsored her for the green card, is married to another woman back in their home country. Although the woman is not committing bigamy, the husband is. What's more, his bigamy could cause the interviewing officer at United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to decide that she herself is practicing polygamy; in other words, is involved in a household where multiple spouses are part of the mix.
Not only could she be disqualified from becoming a naturalized citizen, she could be placed into deportation proceedings and ultimately removed from the United States. (Also see Will You Be Denied U.S. Citizenship Based on Polygamy, Bigamy, or Multiple Marriages?)
Such a situation can be incredibly frustrating for the immigrating spouse. After all, she is not married to two people, hasn't done anything wrong, and in our example, wasn't even aware of her husband's other wife when she married him. Why should her application for naturalization be denied because of her husband's actions?
Let's take a closer look at whether there's any way someone in this situation could qualify for U.S. citizenship.
There is no way that to honestly answer all the questions on the Application for Naturalization (Form N-400) without telling USCIS that one's husband is currently married to two women at the same time. The Form N-400 requests the LPR applicant's complete marriage history AND the U.S. spouse's complete marriage history.
Form N-400 also requires applicants to list all their children (biological, adopted, or stepchildren). Under U.S. law, any children that a husband has while married are also considered the wife's children, whether or not she is the biological mother.
Unfortunately, USCIS interprets polygamy as a cultural or religious practice. That means that a wife who does not leave the relationship immediately upon finding out about the other marriage becomes a knowing partner to the husband's other relationship.
Timing is key here. If the husband was already married when he married the immigrant wife, she does not have a valid marriage, and her very green card could be at risk. That would be a situation in which she should see an attorney immediately.
If, on the other hand, he got married to someone else and had a baby with her while already married to the immigrating spouse, she not only has a good reason to get divorced (the husband is committing the crime of bigamy) but might be able to preserve her green card.
Note that it does not matter that he married his other wife in a different country. In U.S. immigration law, a marriage anywhere in the world is still a marriage.
Now let's see the immigrant does get a divorce from the U.S. citizen spouse, and goes ahead and applies for U.S. citizenship. It's certainly possible that the divorce will raise questions. USCIS might take another look at whether the marriage was bona fide to begin with, as opposed to being a sham to get a green card.
Nevertheless, one can overcome this with documents and personal testimony. See Can I Apply for Citizenship if I've Divorced the Person Who Got Me My Green Card? for details.
If the couple doesn't get divorced, then from the perspective of USCIS, they are probably practicing polygamy. This will depend to some extent on their country of origin. If it's a country where polygamy is not legally or culturally practiced (such as Argentina or Finland), then USCIS might not decide that the two are involved in polygamy. If, on the other hand, it's a country where polygamy is legal and common (like Egypt or Saudi Arabia) or even a country where it is not legal but practiced culturally, such as Kenya or Zimbabwe, it is likely that USCIS will find the couple is practicing polygamy, and likely deny citizenship as a result.