Getting Married for a Green Card
For centuries, marriage had nothing to do with love. It was a sort of partnership between families, creating a mutually beneficial relationship that would ensure the continuation of the bloodline. Love, for the most part, was never really part of the equation. Your mom and dad introduced you to the person with whom you would be sharing the rest of your life a few weeks before the wedding, and that was that.
Then came the 20th century and with it the globalization of American culture. And American culture, ripe with tales of love, romance, and unrealistic expectations, led the world to deifne marriage as something completely different; spending your entire life with someone who was the love of your life, regardless of whether or not this was something anybody was really cut out to do. Then many of us realized this was NOT something we were cut out to do, and then came the birth of the divorce lawyer and a skyrocketing marriage failure rate.
But people still get married for reasons other than love. Many marry for money, some just to climb the social ladder, and others for nothing more than guaranteed sex. Or so they thought. Some just wanted children and didn’t really care with whom they had them so long as they were able to reproduce and continue their blood line. And so it all came full circle. But in America, while it is perfectly legal to marry someone you don’t like for money, sex, fame or pretty much any other non-romantic reason, one motivation is still deemed illegal: Getting married for a Green Card.
THE HOLY GRAIL OF INTERNATIONAL PAPERWORK
Yes, that holy grail of international paperwork known as a United States Permanent Resident Card is a more sought after commodity than 50 yard-line seats at the Super Bowl. Probably because with a few exceptions, you can’t find one on eBay. And with the nation up in arms about immigration reform and a new march planned every week against it, this piece of documentation that us natural born citizens take for granted is becoming something that people will do just about anything for. Including getting married.
In Miami, this has become big business. While a good number of our immigrants are legal thanks to the inexplicable Cuba exception, some from countries that are not political scapegoats face a harder time gaining legal access to all our wonderful country has to offer. Some choose to begin the citizenship process, and hope that they are deemed eligible to continue living here. Others get and renew work visas at clockwork intervals. But many choose to find a morally casual U.S. citizen who is in need of some cash and not planning to marry anyone for a few years. Or maybe just legally can’t. They then go down to the Dade County Courthouse, fill out some paperwork, and next thing you know the once-illegal alien can stay as long as they like. And three years later, they are eligible for a green card. It’s just that simple.
Or not. The INS is not as stupid as many would like to think. At the end of the three year period they require the couple to attend a sort of interview-audit. At this event, they go over your bills, leases, rental history, purchases, and pretty much anything a “real” married couple would have together. They ask personal questions (although not THAT personal) to make sure the couple actually knows each other, and ask to see some photos and family mementos. If they pass, the non-citizen gets a green card, and is usually divorced within a week of receiving it. If they fail the interview, well, the immigrant is deported and the citizen goes to jail. So you had better make sure you have your act together.
TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN
I first learned of this unique type of marriage when I moved here in 1998. My friend Alex*, who was Puerto Rican, was drinking with me one night and disclosed to me that he was in fact married. Given that he had a girlfriend, I found this a rather startling revelation and wondered how she might feel about all of that. She knew, of course, but Alex had been paid $10,000 by the sister of a friend of his to marry her. At 19, I thought it would be a great idea if I could get my hands on a deal like that, and Alex said he would set me up. Fortunately, I never heard back from him. Alex had not gone to the trouble of putting her on his apartment lease, nor was she receiving any mail at his place. I never saw a picture of the girl so I’m guessing they did not have the litany of family photos the INS requires. Alex is still a free man (last I checked) but no word if his bride ever got to stay in the U.S. Or if he ever got his money.
THE “I LOVE YOU” CON
While the mutual-understanding faux-marriage is a common phenomenon in South Florida, what is also sadly common is the citizen being used for his passport. I say his, because as we all know there are more than a few American guys who will fall for the charms of a sexy Latina, quickly overlooking the convenient fact that he can get her into the country legally. I read an excerpt from the book “Coyotes” by Ted Conover that describes him going into a Mexican bar in LA and the hottest girl at the bar blatantly hitting on him, only for him to later find out all she wanted was a gringo to get her a green card. Conover never married her, but my friend Ben was not so lucky.
Ben was a casual friend of mine when I lived in South Beach who worked a variety of service industry jobs with my roommate’s girlfriend. He was a nice, personable guy who would always buy you a drink when you saw him out, and always at least acted excited to see you. One day my roommate came home and told me Ben had gotten married. Now I knew Ben well enough to know that he had not been dating anyone since the last time I saw him, which had been about two weeks before. So apparently it was some sort of whirlwind romance and they had gotten hitched down at the courthouse the week before.
Now Ben was not a bad looking guy, but he was also not exactly the type of dude you’d expect to have a smoking hot Argentine girl fall madly in love with him within a week. Nice, sure. Great guy, definitely. But Ben was not rich and never seemed like to sort of guy who could make women do whatever he wanted. The point is, we smelled a rat. We met his wife one day on the beach, and she seemed nice enough, but we all couldn’t figure out why she had married Ben so fast and, more importantly, why he had married her.
Now maybe Ben was in it for the money and just didn’t tell anyone so he never got found out. Or maybe he knew full well what she was doing but figured he’d get to sleep with a hot Latin girl for a while and went ahead with it anyway. But as much as Ben seemed to like his new wife, when I came back from my disastrous stint in California Ben was in the process of getting divorced. And this, not surprisingly, came almost exactly three years after he had gotten married. My old roommate, who had always known Ben a little better that I had, told me she had moved out a little over a year ago, and that Ben was pretty broken up about it. So poor Ben got stuck with a failed marriage, and his now-ex-wife is a legal resident.
Say what you will, but she did it the best way you can. Maybe she really liked Ben, or maybe she didn’t. We will never know. But she was willing to enter into a relationship with a guy she barely knew in order to get into the country, a relationship I’m guessing she would have foregone if a green card had not been involved. But when it came time for that INS interview, her story was seamless. She gave up a couple of years of her life for a guaranteed future, and it would be hard to take it away from her now.
THE ONLY TIME I’LL EVER BE THE BEST MAN AT AN EX’S WEDDING
But perhaps my most personal involvements in a sham marriage came this year when an Aussie girl I used to date bailed at the last minute on her first INS interview, and was instantly in need of a new husband. Again, fortunately I declined the offer. Mandy had actually been living in Miami since 1999 and had married one of her ex-boyfriends in order to stay after her visa expired. Unfortunately, she had decided to marry an ex that was not a citizen. He was a legal resident, which would have been acceptable, but had he been found out he too would have been deported. At the last minute Mandy decided she could not have that hanging over her conscience.
So the great husband search began. She asked around for anyone willing to marry her to stay in the country. Now Mandy was the type of girl who got marriage proposals from strangers on a daily basis. A tall blonde with a chest that cost more than most people’s cars, it would not have been hard for her to find a guy willing to help her out. The problem, of course, is that she found herself repulsed by the thought of even pretending to marry most of them, and didn’t trust them as far as she could throw them.
She had thought the whole sham-marriage thing through better than most. While she wasn’t going to fake a relationship, she also wouldn’t marry someone who wasn’t going to be believable. He had to be tall, fairly good looking, and intelligent enough to pull off the INS interview. The new guy would also have to have all his bills sent to her apartment and co-sign on her lease. In exchange, he would receive a percentage of her business and free accommodations in South Beach whenever he wanted them.
While she asked several of her American ex’s to do it (myself included), and some hemmed, and some hawed, her gay friend Mike jumped at the opportunity. Mike, who was not in any danger of being allowed to marry anyone he loved anytime soon was in need of a change. Just days from eviction from his own apartment, he agreed to become the new Mr. Mandy in exchange for also becoming her new roommate. And not paying rent. This, of course, would give Mike and Mandy an air-tight story when they went to visit the INS since they were basically living like most married couples: Sharing a house but sleeping in separate bedrooms and never having sex.
The wedding took place at a friend’s picturesque home earlier this year. Mandy had a couple dozen friends and family in attendance, including her sister who flew all the way from Australia. The bride managed to put the wedding together in four days for the grand total of $65. The liquor was donated by her former boss at a big-time nightclub she’d bartended at four several years. The photos were courtesy of a nightlife photographer who she was friends with. Another friend made the cake. Another friend who was a notary performed the ceremony. And the dress was a pretty yellow number she had worn to a wedding a few years before.
They went outside and took about two dozen pictures until Mandy realized she wasn’t wearing a ring in any of them. So they went through and retook them all, borrowing a ring from one of her married friends in attendance. They held the ceremony right at sunset, and because I had been dressed exactly like the groom (a complete accident) I was selected as the best man. For photographical purposes only. I am going to go out on a limb and guess it is the only time I am best man at an ex’s wedding.
The wedding went off without a hitch, aside from the groom getting black out drunk and inappropriately grabbing the boyfriend of one of the bridesmaids, and the bride going into one of the bathroom and crying for an hour, saying “I swore I would never do this again.” But ethical dilemmas and moral objections aside, her story is air tight. They live together. They are both on the lease. They had a wedding and took pictures.
Even if the INS knew the whole story, it would be hard to discredit the couple. After all, just because they’re not in love, why shouldn’t they get married? It was a mutually beneficial arrangement whereas Mandy can stay in the country and continue her flourishing business, and Mike can save some money and go back to school, possibly getting his life back on track. “Real” marriages have been more detrimental to a lot of people’s lives.
So it seems that Miami is just a society harkening back to olden times when love and marriage did not necessarily go together, and the institution itself was more for financial gain than anything else. It is a difficult line to draw, which reasons for marriage are acceptable and which are not. Many stay in loveless marriages for worse reasons than wanting a green card, and end up much more miserable than the bride crying in the bathroom. But for those of us for whom citizenship came the minute we took our first breath, we never realize the lengths many people will go to for what we take so much for granted. So every time I complain about America I think to myself, “Yeah, but if this place is so bad why will people do anything to get here?”
* - names have been changed to protect the potentially guilty
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"Getting Married for a Green Card"