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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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When she asked him to formally divorce her so she could move on with her life, he refused. It took $2,000 to convince him otherwise.

They finally divorced last year. Roberta hasn’t spoken with him since.

For immigrants in Orange County trying to attain their green cards through marriage, interviews take place at the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) field office in Santa Ana’s Civic Center. USCIS’s District 23 covers Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. Approximately 200 immigration officers work the area—home to one of the largest concentrations of immigrants (legal and illegal) in the United States—trying to detect immigration fraud of all kinds.

Chief of staff for District 23 is Martha Flores, who has worked with USCIS since 1982. She seems like a kind woman, and she is quoted often in Southern California newspapers after swearing-in ceremonies for new American citizens. But ask her about illegal immigrants and marriage, and she’s matter-of-fact.

“If they want to adjust their status, they have to have had a legal entry into this country,” says Flores, who works out of USCIS’s district headquarters in Los Angeles. “If they [came on a visa that expired], they can adjust it here. If they entered this country illegally—well, they’re not supposed to be here, and if they fell head over heels in love, they have to go back to their own country, and they have to do the visa process abroad like everyone else.”

Illegal immigrants who get married and want to become legal residents must file two forms with USCIS: Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status, and Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative. After their submittal (and payment of fees of $355 for the former, more than $1,000 for the latter) and subsequent review by immigration officers, couples must go through a follow-up interview. Commonly called a Stokes interview, after the 1975 fraud case Stokes v. INS, couples answer questions posed by an investigator to determine whether this is a legitimate marriage or one of convenience.

All immigration officers are trained in the Byzantine clauses of immigration law, in fraud detection and in how to ask the right questions during the all-important interview with couples. But Flores—who conducted such interviews for nearly a decade—says USCIS has no set guidelines for agents to determine what questions to ask or physical tics to note.

She scoffs at the idea that immigration officers will target anyone who appears jittery during the interview. “Most anyone who comes to a federal office for something so important, they’ll be nervous. When I go to the DMV, I’m nervous. But it depends. It depends on how the interview is going,” Flores says. “It depends on the officer, and then we make a determination at that point whether we’re convinced. If there’s no other problem with the case, then we’ll approve it. But we see so many cases, so it’s hard to pinpoint a specific [warning flag that pertains to all couples].”

If the interviewer suspects fraud, he or she forwards the case to another group of specially trained officers that conducts further investigations, like tracking financial records or visiting homes or workplaces in what Flores calls “site visits.”

USCIS doesn’t keep separate records for marriage fraud from its general statistics on immigration fraud, but The New York Times reviewed agency records for a June 11 article and determined that, nationwide, USCIS rejected only about 8 percent of the 241,154 marriage petitions filed by citizens for their immigrant spouses last year. Flores says she has never noticed a rise or a decline in the number of fake marriages or an increase in young people attempting them. “When it comes down to marriage fraud, it’s not exclusive to anyone,” she says. “The number of them has stayed pretty level.”

It has been nearly 15 years since her last interview, but she does remember people breaking down in front of her and admitting their attempted fraud.

When USCIS determines a case is phony, the agency forwards it to the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) bureau, which prosecutes those cases in conjunction with the United States Attorney’s Office. Flores is not sympathetic to people who commit the crime, no matter the circumstance. “The penalties for marriage fraud are written on the back of the I-130 petition,” Flores notes. “We’re not the prosecuting branch of the service; we just do the denial. But the next level shows no mercy.”

Flores isn’t exaggerating. In 2005, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Santa Ana indicted 44 individuals, most of them Vietnamese Americans, for marriage fraud after completing a years-long investigation dubbed Operation Newlywed Game. The scam involved American citizens marrying Vietnamese and Chinese nationals, most of whom paid tens of thousands of dollars to enter the fake marriages. Among those arrested were students from Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine. Everyone charged pleaded guilty; sentences ranged from 33 months in federal prison to probation.

Such high-profile cases notwithstanding, the amount of marriage-fraud cases the U.S. Attorney’s office prosecutes each year in Southern California is “a small number, a single-digit number,” says spokesman Thom Mrozek. “We’ll prosecute cases when the evidence warrants a criminal prosecution.” The U.S. Attorney’s office doesn’t keep track of how many such cases it pursues, he says, but Mrozek could say “with confidence” that “almost all of the ones [ICE and CIS] send along get prosecuted.”

“If it wasn’t a friend, I’d say let’s do it right now,” Jose says. He and Josefa are at another wedding, this one in the City of Industry. A DJ is playing cumbias as the two stand outside to escape the sauna inside the banquet hall. “I don’t want to get Josefa in trouble, or get myself into a situation I can’t control.”

About The Author

Gustavo Arellano

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