Bernard, a student from Trinidad who recently married an American named Joannie, hoped to become a permanent U.S. resident. But first the Immigration and Naturalization Service in New York City wanted him and his new wife to answer a few questions—questions carefully designed to catch foreigners who enter into sham marriages with Americans simply to gain citizenship. INS officials have been known to ask applicants about tattoos and which side of the bed someone sleeps on, then double-check the answers with their spouses. "We married for love," said Bernard. "But we had heard stories about the interview, and, well, we were still nervous." Nonetheless, he easily passed the interview and was awarded residency.
Bernard might have a tougher time today. Until recently, the foreign spouses almost always received permanent residency status, one step away from full citizenship. Last year more than 60,000 foreigners took that route. Convinced that more than a third of the petitions for permanent residency based on marriage are fraudulent, Congress in October enacted an alien-marriage bill to help the INS guard against those who wed simply to become citizens.
In some sham marriages, a love-stricken citizen is victimized by a spouse who marries only to gain permanent residency. Some American men, for example, send away for so-called mail-order brides and are given the gate soon after their wives receive permanent status. Another marriage fraud involves an alien who pays a U.S. citizen to marry him or her to circumvent INS rules. The foreigner then arranges a quick divorce. In August the INS deported the head of a West Coast ring that had arranged an estimated 70 marriages, for $3,000 to $5,000 a wedding.
To eliminate these abuses, the marriage fraud act creates a two-year "conditional" permanent residency status for aliens who marry Americans. The foreign spouse must report to the INS for a second interview after the trial period; only then does the Government issue final approval. In another provision of the new bill, if an alien happens to be in deportation proceedings at the time of marriage, he or she must return home for two years before becoming eligible for a green card. To cut down on mail fraud, the law requires prospective alien mates to have personally met their future American spouses before coming to the U.S. Penalties for fraud have been stiffened to as much as five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Many lawyers remain unenthusiastic about the new regulations. Says Margaret Wong, a Cleveland attorney: "If the alien is smart, the couple won't file for divorce for two years." Others feel the law further reduces aliens to a lower caste by treating their vows of love as suspect and second-rate. Trevor Scott and Naseem Saunders are a case in point. A native of Jamaica, Scott, 37, applied for a visa at the U.S. consulate in Kingston to travel to Chicago to marry Saunders, 47. But a consular official decided Scott was marrying the older woman as a shortcut into the U.S. and refused to issue the proper papers. Only intervention by several Chicago dignitaries produced the visa. Says Scott: "I was treated like a criminal."