Every couple in which a U.S. citizen marries and sponsors a noncitizen for an immigrant visa or green card based on marriage can expect one thing: Their application will be carefully scrutinized by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and also by the U.S. State Department (if the immigrant is applying from overseas, through a U.S. consulate).
The U.S. government tends to believe that a large number of the marriage-based immigration applications it receives are fraudulent or fake; in other words, that they’re just a means for the would-be immigrant to obtain U.S. residence. (See I.N.A. Section 204(c).)
What's more, the relevant immigration agencies will give some applications a closer look than others, particularly when it spots the “red flags” described in this article.
Bear in mind that, to qualify for a marriage-based green card, you must prove more than the fact that you are legally married. The U.S. government requires evidence that you are sharing, or are making arrangements to share, a life together.
The following types of personal characteristics or living situations raise questions in the eyes of USCIS or the consulate.
- No shared language. If the couple can’t talk to each other, how can they really build a shared life together?
- Vast difference in age. People of different ages certainly do get married sometimes. But when combined with other red flags, the thinking is that it may represent a compromise by someone who is either interested in obtaining a green card or in being paid to help someone else do so.
- Difference in religion. Because religious beliefs are fundamental to many people’s approach to life and daily behavior, the U.S. government takes a second look at applications from people of different religions who have married.
- Different social class or cultural background. People of different wealth levels or place in society often get married, too; but the U.S. government will be curious to know more about how this occurred, and whether it’s for real.
- Difference in race. You can see a pattern here: Any time a couple doesn’t share basic characteristics, it raises questions.
- Unequal educational background. Studies show that most women don’t believe they could admire a man less educated than they; and that men put intelligence and education at number five on their ranking of desirable qualities in a mate. So if one person in the couple is highly educated and the other not, expect questions.
- Different addresses. After marriage, most couples live together. If you don’t; particularly if both of you are living in the same country; you will need to provide a good explanation, for example, that one of you is finishing a university degree and the other one can’t leave his or her job. Also be ready to show that you plan to live together as soon as possible.
- Same house, but no actual interaction. If, for instance, your work and other schedules are set up so that you are never home at the same time, the U.S. government will wonder whether that was intentional.
- Secret marriage. If you haven’t told your friends and family, USCIS will wonder whether it’s because you don’t want them to get all excited about a marriage that you plan to end as soon as the immigrant gets a green card.
- All-too-convenient timing of marriage. A goodly number of marriages happen after an undocumented person in the U.S. is caught and placed into removal proceedings, or before someone on a nonimmigrant visa is reaching the date by which he or she must leave the United States. (One can apply for a green card based on marriage as a defense to deportation.) You will have to explain why you didn’t choose to marry until it became a matter of urgency.
- Attempts to manufacture evidence of shared life right before the interview. You will be asked to provide evidence of joint accounts, assets, memberships, and so on. Those items will likely have dates showing when they were begun. If those dates are mere weeks before the green card or visa interview date, it will create suspicion that you were trying to make your case look good rather than taking natural steps to join your lives.
- Marriage soon after you met. Most people like to take at least several months to consider getting married. If you got married after only a few meetings or weeks, the government will wonder whether the cause was more romance or, say, money.
- Marriage soon after a divorce. Again, this would indicate that the “courtship” was suspiciously short. (Or you might have to prove the existence of a long affair!)
- History of U.S. petitioner sponsoring other spousal immigrants. If the U.S. citizen or permanent resident has married and petitioned for one or more other immigrants in the past, it stands to reason that those marriages ended in divorce. Did that mean a real marriage fell apart, or was the earlier marriage(s) nothing more than a green card scam? And now, since the petitioner didn’t get caught the first time around, is he or she trying it again?
- Noncitizen comes from a country with a history of immigration fraud. The U.S. government keeps track of which countries’ citizens commit visa or other immigration fraud at high rates. Though it’s not your fault, if the immigrant spouse comes from one of these countries, he or she will face extra scrutiny.
- No children if woman is of childbearing age. Having children is not a requirement of marriage, but if no children is an added factor in an otherwise questionable case, it won’t help.
- Impoverished U.S. citizen or resident petitioner. If the U.S. member of the couple lacks a job or apparently needs money, the immigration authorities might wonder whether he or she is looking to make some quick bucks through a fraudulent marriage.
- History of crimes, fraud, or lies by either spouse. Anyone who has committed past illegal acts may be looked at as more likely or willing to enter into marriage fraud.
Clearly, any or many of these factors may be present in a perfectly real marriage. And couples whose cases present no red flags may nevertheless be given a hard time by the immigration decision-makers. The stakes are high. Not only could your case be denied on marriage fraud grounds, but you could face legal penalties.
One important thing is to realize that the authorities have a tough decision to make in a short time. The more you, as an applicant, can do to recognize and allay their likely sources of doubt, the better the odds that your case will be approved. For a complete discussion of the rules and guidance on how to apply, see Fiance and Marriage Visas: A Couple's Guide to U.S. Immigration (Nolo).