Hollywood movies have made it conventional wisdom that one way to speed through the red tape of immigration is to marry. This is true. Often, the marriage is one that is genuinely based on love and affection. Other times, not so much:

Federal officials say the revelation by Oregon first lady Cylvia Hayes that she married an Ethiopian man for $5,000 so he could get his green card has shined a light on the most common way to cheat the U.S. immigration system.

And potentially one of the most dangerous.

About 1 million foreign nationals gain legal status each year, and fully one-fourth of those are through marriage to an American citizen or someone who already is a lawful permanent resident, known as a green card holder.

Of those, some estimate 5% to 15% may be fraudulent, said Todd Siegel, a section chief with Homeland Security Investigations, which is part of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

That would translate to as many as tens of thousands of fraudulent marriages each year — most of which are never discovered.

While cases like this may hurt or embarrass the U.S., what about the person in the marriage – usually the sponsor – who may have been duped into a marriage of convenience? And what rules are there to protect both parties should a legitimate marriage hit the rocks?

Do You Take Uncle Sam To Be Your…

Although former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once said that the government does not belong in the bedroom, when it comes to marriages involving foreign spouses, the government might as well be a third wheel on the honeymoon and well into the life of the relationship.

Wise sponsors, particularly those with significant wealth, should insist that foreign partners sign prenuptial agreements before they get married.  Such agreements shield the estate of the American partner from the potential of losing a lot after a split. But even these agreements cannot completely absolve a U.S. sponsor of liability for the foreign spouse’s post-breakup claims when it comes to immigration-related matters.

Marriage and Green Cards

In the case of marriages that are less than two years old, the foreign spouse is granted conditional permanent residence. On the basis of that conditional green card, the foreign spouse comes to live with the sponsor in America. At the two-year mark of the relationship, immigration officials review the marriage to see if the couple is still together. Those spouses that satisfy officials of the bona fides of their relationship get approved for permanent status. Those who fail are required to leave the country.

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