As an Immigration Lawyer in Houston, I sometimes get asked, What is a Sham Marriage? Sham marriages are a way people avoid complying with immigration laws. A few years ago, sham marriages came into the spotlight with a hit movie, The Proposal, in which the two main characters conspire to enter into a sham marriage for the purpose of tricking immigration authorities. However, it isn’t just a movie plot – sham marriages occur in everyday life, too. They don’t always end up with the two people falling in love, like in the movie. And they don’t always have a happy ending, where everyone can just move on with their lives.
What is a Sham Marriage?
People seek out a sham marriage for an immigration benefit, not to have a life together. Two people can enter into a legal agreement such as a marriage, and get a marriage certificate or other document, but if they do this just to be able to apply for a green card, they’re breaking federal law. Applying for or getting an immigration benefit based on a sham marriage is illegal.
If the immigration services catches a couple in a sham marriage, there are severe penalties for both people in the marriage. Some of these penalties may include incarceration, denial of the immigration application, denial of all future petitions for the person, or even deportation.
Examples of Sham Marriages
There are several ways a couple’s actions can indicate that they are in a sham marriage.
A couple may take a transactional approach to marriage: a foreign national may come to the U.S. and get married just so they can become a permanent resident. The foreign national may make payments to their U.S. citizen spouse or give another benefit to them in order to get a citizen to agree to marry the immigrant. In this situation, they may have their names on an apartment or house lease together in order to give the appearance of a marriage, but one or both of them do not actually live there together. When a couple signs the application forms for a marriage-based case, their signatures serve as declarations that the information on the forms is correct. Lying to the government or withholding the required information on purpose is a crime. The government may catch people lying this way through a simple credit check, or they may send Fraud Detection officers to the address at which they claim to live to investigate.
Another version of a sham marriage involves a noncitizen coming to the United States. Once in the United States, the noncitizen marries a U.S. citizen. The couple eventually gets divorced – sometimes years after the green card process is complete. After the couple divorces, the noncitizen green card holder files to bring a spouse or a significant other from their home country and quickly marries that person.
Another common example of a sham marriage involves two noncitizens who are married in their home country. The two divorce, and both make their way to the United States and marry U.S. citizens. Each of these noncitizens applies for their green card. Sometime after the green card process is complete, they divorce their U.S. citizen spouses. At this point, they typically reunite, living together as spouses again. This scenario is often discovered when one of the individuals applies for an immigration benefit such as naturalization, and the immigration service investigates and determines that the two noncitizens traveled together or had a child together during the time each of them claimed to be married to and living with their U.S. citizen spouses on their immigration forms.
Video: What is a Sham Marriage?
Watch Houston Immigration Lawyer, Kathryn N. Karam, P.C. talk about Sham Marriages with Texas family law attorney, Cindy Hide, on YouTube here.
Immigration officials and marriage fraud
Immigration officials have become very skilled at spotting sham marriages, and if you are seeking immigration due to a marriage, be prepared for them to look very closely at your history and relationship, even if your marriage isn’t a sham. They do this because they need to be sure everyone is following the law.
If someone is caught in a sham marriage, they may face up to five years in prison or up to $250,000 in fines, as well as serious immigration consequences related to their visa and residency status.
When dealing with any immigration concern, it’s important to work with an experienced attorney who can help you understand the process. When you talk to your immigration attorney about marriage and immigration and your green card application process, be sure to be completely honest so they can provide the best advice for your situation.