Why 'Green Card' Marriages Aren't Going Away

Every so often, Boi na Brasa, an otherwise low-key sports bar in Newark, N.J., hosts a sweaty, techno-fueled dance party thronged with young Brazilians.

On the way to one of these parties, Priscilla,* stuffed into the front seat of a pickup truck with three other 20-somethings, received her first marriage proposal. She’d met the man—her would-be betrothed—not five minutes earlier, when her ride opened the truck’s passenger door to reveal the red-faced stranger. But Priscilla, a 24-year-old American born to Brazilian parents, had been expecting the question.

As the truck barreled towards the party, the couple talked specifics. How much money was he offering? (between $10,000 and $15,000). Where would they live? (In Priscilla’s apartment, most likely). When would they meet each other’s families? (at Christmas). Priscilla, whose parents immigrated from Brazil to the U.S. before she was born, switched fluidly between the languages of the two countries. Her counterpart, nervous, spoke only Portuguese. An hour later, Priscilla would tell a friend that she didn’t think the man was good fit for marriage, even if it was temporary. It’s a felony to “marry for papers,” of course, but that wasn’t her concern. No amount of money, Priscilla said, could make a union to a man that ugly believable.

Like many people raised in immigrant communities, Priscilla’s social circle is viciously divided into haves and have-nots; those born in the U.S. to immigrant parents (citizens) vs. those brought here at a young age and still undocumented (“illegals”). Had Priscilla agreed to marry the stranger, she would have joined a storied, unspoken tradition that’s been captivating headlines in recent months. In October, Gabriela Rosa, the first Dominican-born woman to serve in the New York Assembly, was sentenced to a year in prison after it was revealed she paid a U.S. citizen $8,000 to marry her in 1996. A few days later, Cylvia Hayes, the fiancee of Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, admitted that she married an undocumented Ethiopian man in 1997 for $5,000. She has yet to face criminal charges.

Much has changed in the world of immigration reform in recent years, with two huge victories for immigrant rights advocates carried out by the Obama administration. In November 2014, the President announced an executive order granting a three-year deportation reprieve to immigrants brought to the country before the age of 16, and parents whose children were born on U.S. soil. Likewise, the President’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program has helped thousands of young immigrants seek temporary residency since it was signed in 2012.

Still, “green card marriages” persist. With Republican control of both houses of Congress, and high-rank GOP members vowing to defund both presidential actions, some immigrants fear anti-deportation legislation is rickety at best, and an air horn to their whereabouts at worst.  

Matheus* is one of those immigrants. A 26-year-old who lives in Miami but was born in Brazil (no relation to Priscilla), his family moved to the U.S. when Matheus was 10, and he grew up undocumented.

In 2012, Matheus was introduced to the daughter of a family friend at a Christmas party, and she offered to be his temporary bride. Together, they moved in with her parents, bought rings, snapped photos of them kissing, and told the government they wanted to be married. Today, the two are happily divorced, and Matheus is a permanent U.S. resident.

“Year after year, my family would watch the news, and the government would come really close to passing something that would benefit immigrants, and then it would get shot down in Congress,” Matheus said. “I realized that sometimes you can’t wait for things to happen, you have to do them yourself.”

Had Matheus applied for DACA, which authorizes non-U.S. citizens under the age of 31 (as of June 15, 2012) that have at least a GED to remain in the U.S. for two years, he would be considered a “temporary resident,” a precarious, conditional status. In July, Texas Senator and potential presidential hopeful Ted Cruz called defunding DACA his “top priority.” The presidential reprieve, announced in November, is also on shaky grounds: as of this writing, Texas was leading a 24-state coalition to sue the Obama administration over the order.

Matheus, like many immigrants, is weary of a future dictated by either piece of legislation.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen when Obama leaves office,” Matheus said. “It seems like [current legislation] is a temporary fix, and it’s unclear what could happen.”

Sara* is in a similar position. A 29-year-old Bolivian who moved to the U.S. at 15, she lives alone in Queens, N.Y., but shares a mailbox and a checking account with a man she paid about $8,000 to marry. Like Matheus, Sara qualifies for DACA, but opted for a green card marriage, which allows her to remain a permanent U.S. citizen even after she’s divorced.

“Bolivia doesn’t feel like home anymore,” she said. “This is my country.”

Despite political uncertainty, immigration advocates like Wendy Feliz, spokeswoman for the American Immigration Council, urge anyone that qualifies for deportation reprieve to sign up.

“[Current legislation] is helping hundreds of thousands of people,” Feliz said. “It’s not, by any stretch of the imagination, a permanent solution, but it’s the smarter, strategic move.”

Most undocumented youth, Feliz is quick to note, are “following the rules.” Those committing marriage fraud, she said, are “a snapshot” of the immigrant population.

In recent months, the snapshot has widened.

After news of Gabriela Rosa’s phoney marriage rocked headlines, New York State Senator Ruben Diaz wrote a message to his electorate:

“Illegal acts to attain citizenship is nothing new,” he wrote. “There are thousands and thousands of other people who try this too … [and it] will only end when the President of the United States and the American Congress seriously deal with the situations of more than 12 million undocumented citizens.”

*Names have been changed

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