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January|February 2006
Tribunal on Trial David Bosco
A Court in a Storm Aaron Kuriloff
To Have and Hold a Green Card Melissa Nann Burke
A Fix for Junkies Jay Dixit
Setback in Stone Collin Campbell
The Prudent Jurist By William H. Simon
A Wink and a Nod By Len Costa

To Have and Hold a Green Card

Inside the federal crackdown . . . on wedding fraud.

Melissa Nann Burke

LAST SEPTEMBER, IN AN INTERVIEW ROOM in downtown Philadelphia no wider than two bathroom stalls, Lavinia and Cristian Popoiu stood hip to hip and said, "I do." They weren't trading marriage vows—that had been done the year before. Rather, they were swearing to tell the truth to Andrew Garcia, the immigration officer seated in front of them whose task it was to take a close look at the newlyweds' union.

The two were nervous, and perhaps they should have been—their morning meeting with Garcia would determine whether they'd be canoodling in their South Philadelphia apartment this winter or whether Lavinia would be sent back to Romania, where she's from. When Lavinia, 24 years old, a waitress, and a nonresident alien, married Cristian, a 27-year-old truck driver and a United States citizen, she instantly became eligible for a green card—the coveted documentation granting her the right to live and work in the U.S. It had been nine months since she applied for her green card when the two came to Garcia's interview room to clear one of the last hurdles in the application process: to convince him, as an official of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, that their marriage was the genuine article and not a union designed to win Lavinia U.S. residency.

The most common way for immigrants to settle legally in the United States is to marry a U.S. citizen. It's a process that last year made legal residents of 252,193 spouses of U.S. citizens—each one of them interviewed by a CIS officer. But not surprisingly, this path to legal residency has been littered with fraud and more than a few sham marriages. Sniffing out the illegitimacy of these unions falls to immigration officers like Garcia. He's one of 12 officers in Philadelphia who each interview between 10 and 18 green card applicants a day—many of them married couples—in an effort to root out the pretenders.

Though sham marriages that lead to green cards have been used as comedic Hollywood tropes (see, for instance, the Gérard Depardieu romp, Green Card), CIS officials say the job of sizing up immigrants is always serious business. "This is not just a matter of someone pulling one over on us. This is a matter of national security," said Shawn Saucier, a spokesman for CIS, which was formerly part of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and is now an arm of the Department of Homeland Security. The penalties for trying to dupe immigration officials are stiff. An alien accused by authorities of marriage fraud can be deported and barred from ever obtaining a green card. And a person who knowingly marries to evade immigration laws can face five years in jail.

In the last year, the federal government has scored big wins in the fight against fraudulent marriages, breaking up nuptial scam rings in South Florida, Chicago, Des Moines, and Seattle. In those cases, ring leaders are said to have paid U.S. citizens to marry aliens so that the aliens could earn permanent residency. The implicated U.S. citizens who went along with the scheme earned several thousand dollars each. Last fall, a group of 30 conspirators was busted by immigration officials near Miami for arranging or participating in a long-running marriage-for-money scheme. The arrests were the culmination of a two-year probe, dubbed Operation Honeymooners, that immigration officers say involved more than 100 fraudulent marriages.

OFFICER GARCIA DIDN'T WASTE TIME WITH PLEASANTRIES when he met the Popoius. He ran a hand down the length of his tie, which dangled next to his Department of Homeland Security badge, and launched into questions that got very personal, very fast. He asked the two about their tax filings and about the day they first met. Perhaps curious about whether she had demonstrated any proclivity to mix money with affection, he also asked Lavinia if she had ever worked as a prostitute.

Lavinia, her palms laid in her lap, took deep, calming breaths as she worked through Garcia's questions. In a voice that was commanding but soft, Garcia asked to see the couple's passports, which Lavinia removed from a fat file folder she had placed on Garcia's desk. It held birth certificates, bank statements, copies of an apartment lease, tax returns, even photos from their vacations to Key West, Fla., and Washington, D.C.—evidence of a life together.

The law doesn't detail what makes a marriage valid for immigration purposes, and immigration officers like Garcia aren't long on specifics about what exactly they're looking for when testing a marriage's validity. But they say that they keep their eyes peeled for inconsistencies that creep into stories or tax documents or green card application forms. Husbands and wives who haven't known each other for very long or who don't live together tend to raise eyebrows. Couples whose nuptials weren't attended by family often have some explaining to do. Even more suspicious are weddings that families aren't aware of. Husbands and wives of nationalities known not to mingle with each other—say, a Dominican and a Puerto Rican—will often pique curiosity, too.

Meeting with couples gives immigration officers a chance to see how the husband and wife treat each other. Donald J. Monica, who heads the Philadelphia CIS office, explained that the interviewers ask themselves, "Does it look like the people interact with each other normally?" When the answer isn't yes, or when things seem not to add up, the immigration officer will take one of the pair across the hall into a separate room where the questions get more specific. Is there a washer-dryer in the house? Who does the grocery shopping? What did you give your wife for her birthday?

Fishy stories sometimes encourage an interviewer to call for a deeper look into a couple's life, through a visit to their home or interviews with their bosses. But that's not always necessary to smoke out a fraud. One husband and wife recently exposed during a visit to the Philadelphia office couldn't agree on the color of their bedroom walls or carpet. Or the number of siblings each other had, or where they met. An even more brazen pair saw its faux marriage come apart when officials found that the husband and wife couldn't speak the same language.

For Lavinia and Cristian, there were no snags. They'd hired an immigration lawyer to give them a sense of what they should expect at their meeting with Garcia, and the lawyer told them not to be shy if they were asked questions about lingerie—or even more intimate details. What they encountered in their 25-minute session was tame compared with what they were ready for. When Garcia asked Lavinia and Cristian about their first date, Lavinia described the rum and Coke she drank, and the shrimp Cristian nibbled.

"What year was this?" Garcia asked, looking down through wire-rimmed glasses at a file.

"2001," Lavinia said as Garcia cross-checked the date on a computer screen.

Lavinia explained that she had met Cristian in late December. "That is why I say he was my Christmas present." After a few clicks of his mouse, Garcia looked at them both. "Lavinia, it's my pleasure to grant you lawful permanent residence today," he said. "You should get your green card in the mail in 10 days."

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