U.S. immigration law frowns on being married to more than one person at the same time, and prohibits both bigamists and polygamists from becoming naturalized citizens. Practicing polygamy as a legal permanent resident can lead to deportation, as can a criminal conviction for bigamy.
Many people think bigamy and polygamy mean the same thing (which they don't); others find them confusing. In fact, so many people didn't understand the word ‘polygamy' that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) stopped using it on the N-400 Application for Naturalization form (N-400) more than ten years ago. Instead, the form now asks whether the applicant has ever been married to more than one person at the same time.
Most people will simply check "no" in answer to the simplified question, and that will be the end of the issue for them. Other people—accidental bigamists, or immigrants from nations where polygamy is legal, for instance—will answer "yes," and give an explanation.
But a growing number of immigrants may honestly answer "no" to this question, and still find their application denied on the grounds that they are practicing polygamy. For that group of people in particular, it is extremely important to understand both terms and how they are interpreted by USCIS.
Bigamy is the crime of being intentionally married to more than one spouse at a time. To commit bigamy in the U.S., you would have to first legally marry one spouse, and then apply for a second or third license to marry someone else, and follow through with that second (or third) marriage ceremony, all without first obtaining a divorce from the first spouse.
Intentional bigamy is a crime; it virtually always involves lies and deception. Most intentional bigamists have lied to one or both of their spouses, hiding the fact that they are married to two or more people at the same time. Intentional bigamy, even if you have not been convicted of the crime of bigamy, will bar you from having the good moral character required to naturalize.
And even unintentional bigamy can block you from becoming a U.S. citizen, unless you take steps to fix the situation.
USCIS defines polygamy as "the custom of having more than one spouse at the same time." (This comes from the USCIS Policy Manual.) It describes situations where all the parties to all the legal marriages are fully aware of all the marital relationships and deliberately chose to practice polygamy for cultural or religious reasons.
Under the regulations, polygamy is a problem if have have practiced it in the past or are currently practicing it. (See 8 CFR 316.10(b)(2)(ix))
You cannot be considered a practicing polygamist unless you belong to a culture or religion that recognizes the custom of polygamy; but in that case, if USCIS becomes suspicious, it can look at all your sexual and household relationships. As USCIS defines polygamy, it doesn't matter whether or not you are legally married to the people who share your polygamous relationships.
Nor does it matter whether you are the spouse with multiple partners, or whether you are merely one of the partners. The non-legal ‘spouses' of a polygamous man are practicing polygamy just as much as he is.
For example, a refugee who was practicing polygamy before he immigrated will be required by U.S. immigration law to designate one wife as his legal wife to accompany him to the United States. Years later, after becoming a U.S. citizen, he might divorce that wife, and marry the woman who was formerly his second wife, in order to petition for her (on Form I-130) to immigrate to the United States.
If the petition is approved, the new/formerly second wife immigrates, and then USCIS learns that the husband is still continuing to live with the first wife (even if only some of the time), all three could be accused of practicing polygamy. This is the case because all three come from a country where polygamy is practiced. Therefore, if the man lives with both women at the same time, whether the women live separately or apart, their joint behavior meets the USCIS definition of polygamy.
Similarly, if an immigrant from a country where polygamy is practiced culturally but not legally goes through a ceremony of customary ‘marriage' with someone in her country of origin who has other customary wives, USCIS will see her as a practicing polygamist. This will be the case even though there is no legal marriage between the couple, and even though she is living in the U.S. and he and his wives are living outside the United States.
Islam is the most common religious tradition recognizing the custom of polygamy today. Nevertheless, as a result of the biblical practice of polygamy, there exist practicing polygamists in both the Hebrew and Christian traditions. In addition, many African and some South-East Asian nations have sociocultural traditions of polygamy.
If you belong to any of these traditions (or certain sects within them), therefore, USCIS will pay close attention to indications that your household situation fits the definition of polygamy.
Because many immigrants and U.S. citizens come from religious traditions that have practiced polygamy, it is not against U.S. law to believe in polygamy, so long as you are not actually practicing it.
A practicing polygamist might not be a bigamist, if that person does not attempt to legally marry more than one spouse at the same time. So, for example, if a man is legally married to only one woman, but has formed a household in which, based on cultural traditions, he takes other women as "wives," he could be blocked from U.S. citizenship as a polygamist but not as a bigamist.
The opposite situation might be a bigamist who is hiding the bigamy from more than one purported legal spouses. For example, perhaps a woman marries one man in Nevada and another in California, and maintains two households, pretending to often be away on "business." She is not considered a polygamist under U.S. immigration law, as she is not practicing the custom of having more than one spouse at the same time, but is simply pretending to be monogamous with more than one partner. The person could, however, still be blocked from naturalized U.S. citizenship as a bigamist.
Because USCIS defines polygamy as a religious or cultural tradition, USCIS examiners are taught to pay particular attention to the possibility that an immigrant from a country where polygamy is or has recently been legal could still be practicing polygamy. Although refugees and immigrants are all advised that polygamy is illegal in the United States, some immigrants are continuing this practice. (See, for example: In Secret, Polygamy Follows Africans to N.Y. and Some Muslims in U.S. Quietly Engage in Polygamy.)
USCIS examiners reviewing an application for U.S. naturalization will take an especially close look where an immigrant was practicing polygamy before immigrating or is from a country where polygamy is commonly practiced.
The most common way USCIS officers spot polygamous relationships is by paying attention to when and where children are born. The N-400 form requires that all children be clearly listed and their relationship to the applicant noted.
USCIS officers are also trained to pay attention to requests for legal name changes that appear unusual, particularly when the applicant is a female seeking to change her surname. A change of surname can signal to the USCIS officer that the woman is in a non-legal marital-type relationship.
If you have committed bigamy in the past, but 1) you did not obtain your legal resident status through a bigamous marriage, and 2) it has been more than five years since you since one or both of your bigamous relationships ended, your history of bigamy should not, by itself, be enough to cause USCIS to deny your application for naturalization.
If your bigamy was accidental; for example, you believed your prior spouse was dead or you believed you were divorced; and you never actually lived in relationship with both spouses at the same time, you might not need to wait for five years from the time your divorce is legal.
Nevertheless, you shouldn't lie about your marital history on an immigration application, and your USCIS examiner will take your history of bigamy into consideration in determining whether you have the good moral character required to naturalize. If you were charged and convicted criminally of the bigamy, or if you have any other criminal or good moral character issues in your past, definitely consult an immigration attorney before applying to naturalize.
If you practiced polygamy before immigrating to the United States, but neither you nor your spouse(s) have practiced it since becoming a U.S. lawful permanent resident, your prior history of polygamy should not cause your naturalization application to be denied.
If you have personally practiced polygamy since immigrating to the United States, (even if it was many years ago) you should not apply to naturalize without first consulting with an immigration attorney. Practicing polygamy as a legal resident of the United States will not only likely result in denial of your naturalization application, but grounds for deportation.
If you have not personally had multiple spousal relationships at the same time, but you have had a relationship with someone you considered a spouse (whether that relationship was legally recognized or not) and that person had other spousal type relationships at the same time, USCIS could determine that you are a polygamist. This is true regardless of whether your partner was living in the U.S. or abroad. It is especially true if you or your partner come from a country where polygamy is practiced, whether legally or culturally. You should definitely not apply for naturalization without first terminating that relationship (or making certain that your partner has terminated all other relationships). You should also wait to apply for naturalization until five years (or other applicable good moral character period) after the end of the relationship, unless you have a good explanation for why you got involved in the relationship; an explanation that makes it clear you did not intend to practice polygamy.
If you knew your partner was a practicing polygamist, or if you want to apply without waiting, you should definitely consult with an immigration attorney first.
Remember, USCIS examining officers are trained to spot polygamous behavior in applicants for naturalization who come from countries where polygamy is part of the culture. If you were knowingly involved with polygamy or polygamists, your application for naturalization is at risk of denial no matter who you were in the web of relationships.