Will the U.S. Government Make Sure Neither Member of a U.S/Foreign Couple Is a Criminal or Terrorist?

Understanding what steps the U.S. government does or doesn't take to turn up either party's criminal or terrorist history when processing a fiance or spousal immigrant visa application.

U.S. citizens can petition to have their fiances or spouses receive visas to come to the United States and join them, and U.S. lawful permanent residents can similarly petition for spouses. In some cases, however, particularly when the couple met through an online service, the two may really know very little about each other, and have met only on limited occasions.

This creates obvious risks. In response, the U.S. government puts immigrating fiances and spouses through a variety of security checks--but also, for the sake of the immigrants, shares information with some of them about the U.S. half of the couple.

How the U.S. Government Screens Immigrating Fiances and Spouses

Like all applicants for U.S. visas and green cards, an immigrant undergoes various forms of screening. The exact procedures depend on which country the person is coming from, or whether he or she is already in the United States. In addition, the Trump administration has made it harder for people from certain countries to obtain visas of any sort.

The screening ordinarily includes fingerprinting and/or requiring the applicant to supply reports from the police in areas where he or she has lived; checking the name or fingerprints against a variety of national and international law-enforcement databases; asking relevant questions on the visa or green-card application forms; examining applicants' social media accounts; and instructing doctors conducting medical exams as part of the immigration process to follow up on indications of drug and or excessive alcohol use.

Of course, none of this guarantees that the visa or green card recipient can't hide part of his or her past. U.S. citizens or permanent residents would be wise to not rely entirely on these measures when judging the character of a fiance or spouse whom they have only recently met or been in contact with.

How the U.S. Government Protects Immigrating Fiances and Spouses

Someone immigrating to the U.S. to marry is in a vulnerable position, without the community contacts that would help him or her discover whether the U.S. spouse-to-be has a background of criminal behavior, including domestic violence.

This concern led the U.S. government to pass the International Marriage Brokers Regulation Act of 2005 (IMBRA). This law includes various forms of protection within IMBRA, some of which apply to all applicants, others of which apply only to applicants who met through the services of a marriage broker.

The U.S. government must, for example, give all immigrating fiancés and spouses a pamphlet explaining how U.S. law works, with regard to both the immigration process and domestic violence protection. (You can download copies in multiple languages on the U.S Department of State website.) Or, if you’re using an international marriage broker, that agency should be the first to send the would-be immigrant this pamphlet.

A criminal background check is another IMBRA requirement that applies to all U.S. citizen or permanent residents sponsoring immigrants (called "petitioners"), not just those who use a marriage broker’s services.

And the U.S. petitioner will be asked about whether he or she has committed any of various crimes, particularly those involving violence or sexual assault or exploitation, in the course of the application process. The U.S. government will send the foreign fiancé (or spouse) a copy of the results.

As to the marriage-broker part of IMBRA: The statute requires that the U.S. petitioner of a foreign fiancé include in his or her initial petition to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) on Form I-129F a statement as whether the couple met through an international marriage broker. If so, the petitioner must give information about the broker. That broker is then required to give the foreign fiancé information on the U.S. petitioner, including criminal background information obtained from publicly accessible databases and sex offender public registries. The broker is also legally required to get the foreign fiancé’s written permission before giving the U.S. client his or her contact information.

Many reputable online dating websites are exempt from the IMBRA requirements and are not considered to be “mail order bride” services. A dating website or organization that does not serve mainly to provide international dating services between U.S. citizens and foreign residents and that charges similar rates to both Americans and foreigners and to men and women will not be considered “an international marriage broker” for the purposes of IMBRA.

Nor will traditional nonprofit religious or cultural matchmaking services, as long as they otherwise comply with U.S. and local laws.

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