Immigrant Couples Face Scrutiny in Bid to Root Out Sham Marriages

Max and Maria describe process of applying for a spouse green card.

ByABC News
May 25, 2010, 12:55 PM

WASHINGTON, Aug. 2, 2010— -- Like most 20-year-olds these days, Max admits he wasn't quite ready to get married when he wed Maria on a South Florida beach in March, never mind to someone he'd been dating for only four months.

But the undocumented Argentine immigrant -- who asked ABC not to use his real name -- said he couldn't turn down Maria's proposal, especially since it could offer him the chance to become a U.S. citizen alongside his love.

"We talked about if we choose to stay together it would be easier for me to have some status," Max said. By law, Maria, 22, a U.S. citizen, can sponsor her spouse for a visa to live in the country legally.

Last year 227,000 foreign nationals obtained green cards through marriage -- more than any other category of applicant, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. And the numbers are on the rise: up 56 percent from three years before.

Still, many couples with a foreign spouse say marriage is not the easy or automatic path to legal U.S. residency it may seem, citing authorities' intensive efforts to ferret out phony marriages through interviews and investigations.

The process is sufficiently intimidating to Max and Maria that the couple has still not filed the paperwork for a green card, four months after getting married and despite confidence their marriage would pass the test.

Immigration officers scrutinize each couple that applies for a spousal green card, conducting criminal background checks, multiple individual interviews and often visits to the couple's home. The goal, officials say, is to detect disparities between information provided on the application and reality.

"It's an anxiety in the back of my head," Max said of the process. "It's the fear that your life could completely change at the hands of a couple (of) people. ... It could be completely destroyed in a matter of seconds by some guy or woman in uniform, at a desk."

If the couple filed the petition and it was denied, Max said, he would be at heightened risk of detention and deportation.