Red Flags That Make USCIS Suspect Marriage Fraud

When a married couple's basic characteristics or behavior will make U.S. immigration authorities wonder about a possible scam to get the immigrant a U.S. green card.

By , J.D.

Whenever a U.S. citizen marries and then sponsors a noncitizen for an immigrant visa or green card based on marriage, the couple 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, based purely on anecdotal evidence, that a large number of marriage-based immigration applications are fraudulent or fake; in other words, that they're just an attempt by the would-be immigrant to obtain U.S. residence. (See I.N.A. § 204(c).)

What's more, the relevant immigration agencies will take a closer look at some applications than others, particularly when it spots the "red flags" described in this article. We'll discuss how to know when your case might be "waving" such red flags, and how to deal with these to successfully obtain a U.S. green card.

Why Isn't a Marriage Certificate Enough to Prove a Valid Marriage to USCIS?

A marriage certificate is only the beginning. Practically anyone can go to a courthouse and get married. In order to qualify for a marriage-based green card in the U.S., however, you must prove not only that you are legally married, but that your marriage is actually bona fide, meaning you are sharing, or are making arrangements to share, a life together.

That can mean living in the same house, sharing a bed, spending time together on holidays or at family celebrations, combining one's bank accounts and debts, and more. It doesn't have to include all those things, but unless it includes a healthy number, you might have some explaining to do.

Examples of documents most couples use to show USCIS that their marriage is the real thing include copies of joint bank statements, leases, and mortgages, children's birth certificates, and so on. Learn more about Proving the Bona Fides of Your Marriage for Immigration Purposes.

Fact Patterns in Which Couples Must Work Extra Hard to Prove a Bona Fide Marriage

The following types of personal characteristics or living situations raise questions in the eyes of USCIS or the U.S. consulate.

No shared language

If the couple can't talk to each other in any meaningful way, how can they really build a shared life together? At the least, you'll want to show U.S. immigration authorities that you're taking steps to learn the other's language, or how you've learned to communicate.

Vast difference in age

People of different ages certainly get married sometimes. But when combined with other red flags, the thinking is that it could represent a compromise by someone who is either interested in obtaining a green card or in being paid to help someone else do so. This can be overcome by showing the many other points of commonality between you.

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. You'd want to provide indications of why this isn't a big deal in your household (for example, one half the couple is not an observant member of their religion), or that one or both of you is learning about and possibly converting to the other's religion, or some other appropriate steps.

Different social class or cultural background

People of different wealth levels or place in society often get married, too. Nevertheless, the U.S. government will be curious to know more about how this occurred, and whether this is true love or not.

Difference in race

You can see a pattern here: Any time a couple doesn't share basic characteristics, it raises questions in the eyes of U.S. immigration authorities. You shouldn't have to explain why it's possible to fall in love with someone from another race, but you'll want to emphasize the points of commonality or shared interests.

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. You might want to find ways to remind U.S. immigration authorities that educational degrees aren't the last word on intelligence, skills, or emotional depth.

Living at 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, showing that one of you is finishing a university degree and the other one can't leave a job could help your case. 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, or share a bed, the U.S. government will wonder whether that was intentional. There's no legal requirement that you sleep in the same bed or have intimate relations, but again, you'd need to provide a persuasive account of what's important in your marriage.

Secret marriage

If you haven't told your friends and family about your union, 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. You'll definitely need to explain this situation. It's not unusual to have a family member object to a marriage, to a point that the couple might keep it secret, but to tell absolutely no one is unusual. It might help to get affidavits from the few friends you have told, recounting your swearing them to secrecy and affirming the position of the family (if they have personal knowledge of it).

All-too-convenient timing of marriage after deportation proceedings begin

A good 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 they must leave the United States. (It's possible to 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. See ICE Wants to Deport Me: Is It Too Late to Marry a U.S. Citizen?.

Attempts to manufacture evidence of shared life right before USCIS interview

As mentioned, you will be asked to provide evidence of joint accounts, assets, memberships, and more. Those items will likely have dates showing when they were begun. If many of the 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. Plan ahead!

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 the heat of romance or, say, money. Get ready to explain!

Marriage soon after one person's divorce

Again, a marriage by someone who was presumably not free to date until recently could 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 were the earlier marriages nothing more than green card scams? And now, since the petitioner didn't get caught the first time around, are they trying it again? Definitely expect heavy questioning in this situation.

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

Giving birth to children is not a requirement of marriage. However, doing so is viewed as strong evidence that the marriage is real. By the same token, having no children can be seen an added negative factor in an otherwise questionable case.

If infertility is an issue, providing medical documents and proof of any treatment you've sought will help.

Impoverished U.S. citizen or resident petitioner

If the U.S. member of the couple lacks a job or is apparently in desperate need of money, U.S. immigration authorities might wonder whether that person is looking to make quick bucks through a fraudulent marriage.

History of crimes, fraud, or lies by either spouse

Anyone who has committed past illegal acts, particularly in a quest for money, might be looked at as more likely or willing to enter into marriage fraud.

Dealing With Red Flags in Your Green Card Application

Clearly, any or many of the above factors might be present in a perfectly real marriage. And couples whose cases present no red flags could nevertheless be given a hard time by U.S. 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).

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