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What's a Little Marriage Fraud Between Amigos? 

It's a felony, sure, but in the absence of real immigration reform, some young, assimilated illegal immigrants see it as their best path to citizenship.

Wednesday, Jul 7 2010
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Juana divorced Juan in 2008, citing irreconcilable differences. They had a perfect cover for that, too: Juan was moving to the East Coast to attend graduate school. They still keep in touch—Juana and her boyfriend attended Juan’s graduation a couple of weeks ago.

“My guy was a trooper,” Juana says, referring to her now-fiance. “He didn’t get too jealous, even if that meant we had to sacrifice some of our own time over those years. He understood—he even says he would’ve done it if someone needs that help.” She claims she and Juan never experienced any romantic feelings toward each other. “We were really good friends who supported each other. Even when we kissed for the cameras, it was just acting. It obviously worked.”

“I owe my life to Juana,” Juan says. “We never slipped. Imagine if we did?”

Jose and Josefa are looking for wedding bands inside the Asian Gardens Mall in Little Saigon. They’ve already picked a date in November for their fake wedding and a venue for their party. The two plan to move in soon and open a joint bank account. But Juan doesn’t plan to apply for his residency until 2012.

“I’ve heard that if you wait for a year, it won’t seem like we did it just for the green card,” Jose says, as they leave one jewelry shop for another. “It’ll seem as if we’re actually two kids in love.”

In a way, they are. Jose entered this country in 1997, not knowing a word of English. One of the first friends he made in junior high was Josefa, who also kept his sexuality a secret through high school and into college. “I always knew about my legal status, but I figured that at some point, it would fix itself,” Jose said. “I figured that by the time I graduated, something would happen, whether the DREAM Act or amnesty or something. As cheesy as it sounds, I just figured I’d go on with my life to the fullest that I can, and it would all work out.”

But despair set in earlier this year, when a close friend of his was caught in an immigration checkpoint in the Midwest and is now fighting deportation hearings. Jose had about $5,000 in the bank, and he decided he’d pay a woman whom his sister-in-law knew to marry him. The day they were supposed to meet and discuss the proposition, Jose didn’t show.

“I’ve heard too many horror stories,” he said. He then tells the story of a friend of his mother’s: “He married a black woman, paying her $2,000. This was about 10 years ago. She still calls him every couple of months, threatening to go to immigration unless he pays her more money. He’s stuck in a nightmare.

“Besides, if I was going to marry someone,” he adds, “it would be because I actually like the person, not just to save myself.”

Jose didn’t tell Josefa about his plans to pay someone to marry him. A couple of weeks ago, they were stuck on the 101 freeway, returning from a night of bar-hopping in Hollywood, talking to let the time go by. There was a silence, and then she blurted, “Why aren’t we getting married?” They had never brought up the subject before. He laughed it off. The following day, she called him again and asked.

“You don’t have to do it,” he said.

“I’m doing it for the movement,” she replied. “And for you.”

“I had to think about it for a couple of days,” Jose admits. “I didn’t think she was serious.” Over the next couple of days, the two talked about the next few years—what they would face, what they needed to do, how their lives would change.

“He’s a sweet guy—how can I not help him?” she now says. “He’s like a brother. It’ll be easy.”

Juan laughs nervously. Two of his friends pulled off a fake marriage, but it ended up ruining their relationship.

Roberto and Roberta first met in the same social circles of work, though from different strata. She was a secretary for a law firm, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who had succeeded in this country; he was a janitor who cleaned the offices of Roberta’s company. After months of friendly chitchat, he gathered the nerve to ask Roberta on a date. It turned into a brief, passionate, stormy relationship. The main problem: Her parents didn’t approve.

“They try to portray themselves as liberals, but they’re as prejudiced as Minutemen,” Roberta says with a dejected, disgusted tone. “Flat-out, they didn’t like that he was poor and dark-skinned.”

Their fling didn’t last, but Roberta wanted to help Roberto with his legal status. His case was simpler than most: Though an illegal immigrant, his family had come to the United States from Mexico City on a visa when he was 7 and just never left. U.S. immigration law allows such illegal immigrants to remain in the country after they get married and start the process to legalize their status.

Besides, Roberto offered to pay all of Roberta’s bills during their marriage. But she remained skeptical. “I sat down with him,” she says, “and told Roberto, ‘I want you to know that our past is the past. If something happens in the future, it happens. But let’s keep things in check. Let’s approach this like a job.’”

They married in 2002, both of them just 20 years old, and only had to go through one interview, with no follow-up investigation. Living together rekindled their passion, but it only lasted a couple of months. He continued to love her; she moved on. But Roberto wouldn’t take the message. “He became jealous and possessive—I couldn’t even go out with friends, let alone find someone I truly liked,” she says. “But at the same time, I couldn’t get too angry at him because I made a commitment to help him. He’s a good guy, and I’m glad I helped him out, but it was a nightmare for me.”

About The Author

Gustavo Arellano

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