Immigration law allows U.S. citizens and permanent residents to petition for immigrant visas for family members. Certain family members of U.S. citizens, including spouses, are not subject to any numerical restriction. Relatives of permanent residents fall into various preference categories and may face substantially longer wait periods before obtaining a visa. Once a family member has an immigrant visa, they can begin the process of applying to adjust status to permanent residence. Since marriage to a U.S. citizen is one of the fastest routes to obtaining a green card, immigration authorities are wary of fraud, such as through “sham marriages” between a U.S. citizen and a prospective immigrant. Two recent cases from New Jersey and New York illustrate how federal and state officials investigate and handle these types of cases.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) places a high priority on detecting marriage fraud in immigrant visa petitions and applications for adjustment of status. They may require a substantial amount of evidence establishing that a marriage is genuine, and USCIS inspectors have broad discretion to determine whether a marriage is genuine or not. If an immigrant was married for less than two years at the time their application for permanent residence is approved, they receive “conditional permanent residence.” They may petition to remove the conditions after two years by showing that they are still married, that they are divorced or widowed, or that they were subjected to domestic abuse or other extreme hardship. A “bad” marriage is not necessarily a fraudulent one. The key question is whether the couple entered into the marriage primarily for the immigration benefits.
The head of a New Jersey immigration consulting firm was sentenced to two years in prison in March 2015, after pleading guilty to three charges arising from various acts of immigration and marriage fraud. United States v. Poku, No. 1:14-cr-00492, judgment (D.N.J., Mar. 30, 2015). The defendant was accused of creating sham marriages for numerous individuals, mostly from Ghana, to help them obtain immigrant visas and green cards. According to the government, he hired people to pose as spouses in USCIS interviews, forged documents demonstrating cohabitation in the U.S., and forged Ghanaian government documents. He pleaded guilty to one count of illegally inducing people to come to the U.S. without legal documentation for commercial advantage. 8 U.S.C. §§ 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv), (a)(1)(B)(1). He also pleaded guilty to two counts of money laundering and wire fraud.