What's a Little Marriage Fraud Between Amigos?

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“I’ve heard too many horror stories,” he said. He then tells the story of a friend of his mother’s: “He married a black woman, paying her $2,000. This was about 10 years ago. She still calls him every couple of months, threatening to go to immigration unless he pays her more money. He’s stuck in a nightmare.

“Besides, if I was going to marry someone,” he adds, “it would be because I actually like the person, not just to save myself.”

Jose didn’t tell Josefa about his plans to pay someone to marry him. A couple of weeks ago, they were stuck on the 101 freeway, returning from a night of bar-hopping in Hollywood, talking to let the time go by. There was a silence, and then she blurted, “Why aren’t we getting married?” They had never brought up the subject before. He laughed it off. The following day, she called him again and asked.

“You don’t have to do it,” he said.

“I’m doing it for the movement,” she replied. “And for you.”

“I had to think about it for a couple of days,” Jose admits. “I didn’t think she was serious.” Over the next couple of days, the two talked about the next few years—what they would face, what they needed to do, how their lives would change.

“He’s a sweet guy—how can I not help him?” she now says. “He’s like a brother. It’ll be easy.”

Juan laughs nervously. Two of his friends pulled off a fake marriage, but it ended up ruining their relationship.

Roberto and Roberta first met in the same social circles of work, though from different strata. She was a secretary for a law firm, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who had succeeded in this country; he was a janitor who cleaned the offices of Roberta’s company. After months of friendly chitchat, he gathered the nerve to ask Roberta on a date. It turned into a brief, passionate, stormy relationship. The main problem: Her parents didn’t approve.

“They try to portray themselves as liberals, but they’re as prejudiced as Minutemen,” Roberta says with a dejected, disgusted tone. “Flat-out, they didn’t like that he was poor and dark-skinned.”

Their fling didn’t last, but Roberta wanted to help Roberto with his legal status. His case was simpler than most: Though an illegal immigrant, his family had come to the United States from Mexico City on a visa when he was 7 and just never left. U.S. immigration law allows such illegal immigrants to remain in the country after they get married and start the process to legalize their status.

Besides, Roberto offered to pay all of Roberta’s bills during their marriage. But she remained skeptical. “I sat down with him,” she says, “and told Roberto, ‘I want you to know that our past is the past. If something happens in the future, it happens. But let’s keep things in check. Let’s approach this like a job.’”

They married in 2002, both of them just 20 years old, and only had to go through one interview, with no follow-up investigation. Living together rekindled their passion, but it only lasted a couple of months. He continued to love her; she moved on. But Roberto wouldn’t take the message. “He became jealous and possessive—I couldn’t even go out with friends, let alone find someone I truly liked,” she says. “But at the same time, I couldn’t get too angry at him because I made a commitment to help him. He’s a good guy, and I’m glad I helped him out, but it was a nightmare for me.”

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.

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Gustavo Arellano
Contact: Gustavo Arellano

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