March 20, 2006 -- Last week, Isabel* got married. Of course, her husband was there. But so was her husband's boyfriend. And her husband's boyfriend's wife.
Isabel, an immigrant from Latin America, has been living in Miami for the last eight years. She went to school here and has started a promising career. And she has lots of friends -- jet-setting Europeans and American girls who count among the "beautiful people."
When her visa ran out, one of those friends -- her very special friend David* -- agreed to marry her so that she could apply for a resident visa. For David, lending Isabel a hand in marriage wasn't much of a sacrifice. Being gay, David had no intention of marrying another woman, now or any time in the foreseeable future.
As for David's finding some way to marry his gay partner, someone else beat him to it. His gay partner, Manuel,* is also an immigrant from Latin America living in Miami. When he started having visa problems four months ago, he decided to marry Laura.*
Now David, Manuel, Isabel and Laura form an unlikely quartet of marriage under the law: two husbands, two wives, but only one couple. As Isabel describes David, whom she met at work, "he's great at his profession. … He's handsome. … I could have been in love with him," she said. "It's kind of sad that he -- my husband -- is gay."
Cash to Walk Down the Aisle
While the double marriage and sexual preference twist may be unusual, the basic story of marrying to stay in America is nothing new.
According to immigration lawyer Carl Shusterman, what the government calls a "fraudulent spouse profile" -- and he calls a "phony baloney marriage" -- is a relatively common way immigrants evade rules that would otherwise keep them out. Isabel believes that in Miami, it's easy to find American citizens short on cash and ready to offer their hand in marriage for up to $12,000 a hitch.
Shusterman was previously a government immigration officer who investigated suspicious marriages as part of his job. He estimates that 500,000 and 600,000 of the 1 million people who immigrate to the United States each year obtain their green card through marriage. Mixed in with the many legitimate marriages are "fraudulent spouses."
For immigrant brides like Isabel, walking down the aisle is perhaps the easiest step in the process. She and David will go through a series of interviews meant to test whether they married for love or for passport. Immigration agents, on the lookout for any sign of fraudulence, can ask for anything from joint tax filings to the brand of shampoo he or she uses.
If agents get suspicious during the interview, Isabel can get arrested on the spot and subsequently deported. Not only that, her dream of staying in the United States would be washed away forever by section 204c of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
That provision states that any immigrant found to be married for the purpose of evading immigration laws can never be granted a visa and never again allowed into the country.
"You're under a life sentence -- you can never get back in and there's no forgiveness," Shusterman said. "You're better off robbing a liquor store as far as your immigration application is concerned."
Isabel maintains her calm at the forthcoming interview. "Of course I am afraid they are going to notice that he'll look too gay in the interview," Isabel said. "But I know guys who are much gayer than my husband and could get away with it."
Isabel adds, "If I didn't do this and I just went back to my country, I'd always regret that there was one more thing I could have tried to stay in America, but I didn't do it."
Right Vs. Wrong
"Give me rules that can help me stay," Isabel begs. "I do know that I'm doing a wrong thing but I'm only doing it because there's no right thing to do."
"I've learned so much about a side of things, an ugly side of the coin, that real Americans don't know," she said. "And now I found someone who wants to help me."
Should Isabel be allowed to stay? In helping her, is David harming America? The ethical dilemmas only accumulate.
"What am I doing bad to the United States?" Isabel asks. "I have no criminal record. I want to pay taxes. I want to work legally."
In her opinion, she's not here to take advantage of the United States. "I have so much I can contribute to your country."
*All names have been changed to protect the newlyweds.