Marriage is one of the few ‘easy’ ways to gain legal residency in the United States. But it is a route that has pitfalls to it. One of the largest reasons is that individuals do marry solely to gain residency. This is illegal and considered a form of fraud. As a result of this, a U.S. citizen who marries or intends to marry a non-citizen should take precautions to demonstrate that their marriage is real and legitimate.
First of all, it is often easier to bring one’s spouse into the country under a K-1 (fiancee) visa and hold the wedding in the United States. This circumvents issues with the validity of marriages conducted overseas. United States immigration law does not currently recognize customary marriage (that is to say, marriages performed under folk or indigenous customs but not considered legally binding in the country in which it was performed) or same sex marriage. Unfortunately, the latter does also cover marriages conducted in the United States. Other than that, the validity of a marriage entered into overseas depends on the local laws and customs. An individual who comes in under a K-1 can obtain the legal right to work in the United States immediately. This is not necessarily the case with an immigrant spouse. If one or both potential spouses is a widow(er), then you should ensure you have a copy of the prior spouse’s death certificate. If a divorce or annulment has happened, then documentation proving its validity will be required. The K-1 visa is limited to 90 days and a legal marriage must take place within that period. All requirements for marriage in your jurisdiction need to be met, such as blood tests prior to obtaining a marriage license.
The largest concern is proving that the marriage was not entered into for immigration purposes. Given the desirability of United States residency, sham marriages are common and officials of the United States Customs and Immigration Services are trained to recognize them. There are a number of ways of convincing them. Preparing documents that prove cohabitation is important. Ensure that your spouse’s name is added to your lease if you rent or to your mortgage or the deeds on your home. Obtain a joint bank account, even if you also keep separate accounts for personal expenses. Add your spouse to your credit cards and the insurance on your vehicle. If you have children, make copies of their birth certificates. If possible, it is also a good idea to do second parent adoption on any children that are the biological offspring of only one member of the couple. If you lived together before the marriage and have evidence of that, such as photos, that is also helpful. Individuals who have been married for at least two years before petitioning for residency for the alien spouse tend to get a pass. One little known tip is to get good photos of your wedding…photos showing a genuine celebration, especially if the alien spouse’s family attend, are a subjective but strong indication of a bonafide marriage. Unfortunately, immigration services have been known to be particularly suspicious of interracial marriage or marriages with a large age difference.
Bear in mind that an immigrant spouse obtains only conditional permanent resident status. This has to be removed after two years, and will only be done if the marriage is still in existence and valid. A divorce or annulment will almost always prevent the immigrant spouse from obtaining residency, although if all of the evidence above is in place and good records are kept, it is possible to confirm status. Widowhood is generally not an obstacle, again if all of the evidence is in place. Thus, it is very important to keep financial records that prove a joint household such as samples of bank statements, utility and telecommunications bills in both names and your lease. The filing must be joint unless the marriage has ended or there is evidence of domestic violence. In some cases, an earlier application can be filed, especially in cases of abuse. In many cases, an interview is required, which may be conducted with the spouse or separately. This is a good time to bring out your wedding photos, honeymoon photos or any other ‘evidence’ that indicates a happy relationship.
Marrying a non-U.S. citizen and obtaining immigration rights is long and complicated, but remains completely possible. As a final tip, doing as much research online as possible is a good idea. Having to contact the USCIS is something best kept to a minimum due to the agency’s high work load and limited lines of communication.