Is a Stall on Immigration Reform Leading to More Marriage Fraud?

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The LA Weekly recently profiled three sham marriages, each intended to get an illegal immigrant on the path to a green card.

Where:

Southern California    

What's happening?

With little movement on the immigration reform front, the paper reports, illegal residents are expediting the citizenship process via fraudulent marriages. The profile documents three cases of staged relationships: A Mexican immigrant, whose 13-year long residency claim was denied, married his classmate. A gay Cal-State grad hopes to avoid deportation by marrying a good friend. And an illegal immigrant with an expired visa married his ex-flame, with whom he's no longer in a romantic relationship.

Wedding an American can provide would-be citizens with permanent residency status, but the process involves much more than just nuptials. Once a legal citizen marries an illegal immigrant the United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) decides if the couple staged a marriage just to obtain a green card. If so, the immigrant faces possible deportation, a ban from applying for legal entry into the U.S., up to five years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine.

What's next?

With immigration reform halted, it may seem plausible that marriage fraud will become an increasingly attractive option. As Darrel West, an immigration expert from the Brookings Institute, sees it, with the status quo, "there is great frustration and long waiting lines to get visas and that creates clear incentives for people to use whatever means are necessary to get a visa -- and that includes marriage fraud."

Yet even as frustrations mount, we shouldn't necessarily expect fraud rates to rise. Despite the "trend" frame of their story, the LA Weekly cites Martha Flores of the UCSIS, noting in passing that she hasn't seen any changes in the number of fraudulent marriages: "The number of them have stayed pretty level." And the numbers seem to back this up. The New York Times reported that the in the last fiscal year, the USCIS only rejected 506 of the 241,154 marriage petitions because of suspected fraud. Relatively few, it seems, fake marriages for green cards.

Perhaps the system is easy to scam, or the penalties deter most illegal immigrants, or people just aren't doing it. Either way, people don't seem to be giving up on the prospect of legislative solutions. Just last week protesters demonstrated outside of the White House to promote the DREAM act, a bill that helps immigrants like those the LA Weekly profiled obtain visas legally.


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Rebecca Greenfield is a writer based in Brooklyn. She was formerly on staff at The Atlantic Wire.

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