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In a green card marriage, a person immigrating to the United States (U.S.) obtains a green card by marrying a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. A green card is a document from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) that grants non-citizens permanent residence within the U.S. A wedding is only one step in the process of obtaining a green card through marriage, however. Before applying for a green card, the couple must first be married and prove that the betrothal was in good faith, not merely a marriage of convenience for the purpose of manipulating immigration laws.
A green card marriage often begins with a betrothed couple marrying outside of U.S. borders, in the home country of the spouse seeking U.S. residency. This is because green cards aren't granted preemptively; one has to have an existing relationship that the USCIS deems eligible for green card consideration. After the marriage occurs, the spouse with U.S. residency can fill out an I-130 form, also called a petition for alien relative. After reviewing the form and the legitimacy of the marital relationship, the USCIS may then grant a green card, allowing the alien spouse to immigrate to the U.S. and obtain residency.
In other cases, a green card marriage may begin with a U.S. resident marrying an illegal immigrant within U.S. borders. These situations can be tricky, however, and don't necessarily result in the immigrant receiving immediate permanent residence. In some cases, the alien spouse may have to return to their home country, have the legal U.S. spouse file an I-130 form, and wait for approval before returning. The other option is to stay within the U.S. until a green card is granted, but risk deportation in the interim.
Another method of green card marriage is for the immigrating fiancé to obtain a K-1 visa, allowing him or her to enter the U.S. specifically for the purpose of marrying a citizen or permanent resident. A K-1 visa conveniently allows the marriage to occur legally within U.S. borders, and smoothly aids the transition from alien relative to green card holder. K-1 visas are sometimes used to bring mail-order brides to the U.S.
If a green card marriage is found to be fraudulent—in that the couple married not for love, but to manipulate immigration laws—fines and imprisonment may result. Specifically, a person or couple may be fined up to $250,000 and imprisoned for up to five years for subversively obtaining a green card through marriage.
When I was young and single, I seriously considered participating in a green card marriage with an eastern European girl I met on vacation. She desperately wanted to immigrate to America for better job opportunities in her field, and I didn't mind the idea of having a rather attractive woman living in my house, even if it wasn't a true romantic relationship.
I thought about it for a few months, but then I read some horror stories about immigration officers throwing the book at couples who tried to pull off illegal green card marriages. I'd have to know a lot of intimate details about her, and if our stories didn't match exactly, we'd both be in a lot of trouble. She would have been much better off just getting on the waiting list for legal immigration instead of getting stuck in a fake marriage for her green card.
I have only met one person who I thought was trying to get her green card through marriage. She was from Germany, and I suspect she was just looking for a legal way to move to the US. She met and married an American soldier stationed in Munich, and they moved back to the United States when he was reassigned to Texas. They had one child together.
When I met her, she was already divorced from that soldier and living in another state. The problem was that the divorce technically ended her legal residency status. That's one of the risks with the green card marriage process. The immigration department might accept the marriage as legitimate, but divorce can change everything. She eventually got caught when she tried to visit her daughter in Texas, and she was deported back to Germany.
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