Marrying a U.S. citizen is one of the quickest — but not necessarily the easiest — way to get a green card. USCIS will deny a marriage-based green card case if it does not receive sufficient evidence of a bona fide marriage and/or if it determines that the marriage is a sham.
A U.S. citizen’s filing of an I-130 petition with USCIS is the first step to helping the foreign national spouse become a permanent resident. A spouse who was lawfully admitted to the United States or who qualifies for 245(i), and is still in the U.S., may concurrently file an I-485 application to become a lawful permanent resident (green-card holder). One advantage is that the spouse does not have to depart the U.S. to apply for an immigrant visa at the U.S. Consulate.
Submitting the I-130 and I-485 together is known as the one-step petition/application. Normally, USCIS processes and adjudicates both at the same time. The foreign national cannot receive a marriage-based green card unless USCIS approves the I-130 petition.
Here are five things to do to get your marriage-based green card:
1. Enter into a bona fide marriage
USCIS will approve the I-130 petition only if it finds that the parties entered into marriage in good faith, i.e. intended to establish a life together at the time they married. Normally, it must be proven by a “preponderance of the evidence” that the marriage is bona fide. Basically, this means the petitioner must show that it is “more likely than not” the marriage is real. [NOTE: When the marriage occurs while the foreign national is in removal proceedings, the standard of proof is higher: It must be shown by “clear and convincing evidence” that the marriage is real.]
Typically, USCIS expects a bona fide married couple to speak each other’s languages, live together, share common interests, co-mingle their finances, own joint property, and celebrate important events like holidays, birthdays and anniversaries.
A good faith marriage is one that is entered into for reasons other than for circumventing U.S. immigration laws. It could be arranged or freely chosen by the parties. It may be based on mutual love and affection, shared religious beliefs, a need for lifetime companionship, or a desire to raise children together.
A bona fide marriage is the opposite of a sham marriage, which is when the parties marry solely or primarily to obtain immigration benefits for the foreign national. USCIS’ Adjudicator’s Field Manual lists 10 factors indicating a marriage might be a sham:
- Large disparity of age
- Inability of petitioner and beneficiary to speak each other’s language
- Vast difference in cultural and ethnic background
- Family and/or friends unaware of the marriage
- Marriage arranged by a third party
- Marriage contracted immediately following the beneficiary’s apprehension or receipt of notification to depart the United States
- Discrepancies in statements on questions for which a husband and wife should have common knowledge
- No cohabitation since marriage
- Beneficiary is a friend of the family
- Petitioner has filed previous petitions on behalf of foreign nationals, especially prior foreign national spouses
If any of these 10 factors apply to your marriage, you can expect more scrutiny from USCIS.
2. Establish a life together and collect proof of this
Before the one-step petition is filed, the couple should take steps to establish a married life together and collect documents to prove they are committed to one another. Examples include:
- Living together (joint residential lease or mortgage statement showing both names, driver’s licenses showing same address)
- Buying major assets together (motor vehicle title, invoice for furniture)
- Adding the spouse as a beneficiary to employer-sponsored benefit (life insurance policy, health insurance plan, retirement account)
- Co-mingling assets and liabilities (joint bank account statements, joint credit card statements, joint tax returns)
- Sharing household expenses (utility bills in both names)
- Going on vacations together (travel itineraries, photographs)
- Participating in shared activities (gym or club memberships)
- Spending time with mutual friends (affidavits from third parties attesting to the bona fides of the marriage)
The Service will consider the parties’ conduct before and after the marriage to determine their true intent at the time of marriage.
Circumstances might require the couple to live apart temporarily, especially for work-related reasons. If the couple is not living together at the time they file for immigration benefits or at the time of their interview, they need to have a good explanation and gather reliable documentation showing they have a real marriage. Examples include:
- Letters, emails and greeting cards you have exchanged with each other
- Airline tickets, hotel bills and other receipts showing trips you made to see each other
- Telephone records showing calls you made to each other
- Photographs of the two of you together and with family and friends (or even with pets), taken over a considerable period at different events
- Correspondences (e.g. bills, letters, cards) addressed to both of you at the same address
- Receipts for gifts you bought each other
- Birth certificates of (biological, adopted) children you have together, or evidence that you are trying to have children
3. Provide sufficient evidence of a bona fide marriage
The Instructions for Form I-130 list the types of documents that may show the bona fides of a marriage. They include documentation showing joint ownership of property (e.g. mortgage, car title); documentation showing co-mingling of financial resources (e.g. joint bank account); birth certificates of children you have together; and affidavits from third parties confirming the bona fides of your marriage.
Your marriage certificate and proof of termination of any prior marriages (e.g. divorce decree or death certificate of previous spouse) only show that your marriage is valid. These documents are required, but are not sufficient to show the marriage is bona fide.
Filing a one-step petition is not just about completing the forms and submitting the filing fees. You also need to carefully document the bona fides of your marriage and give USCIS a sense of who you are as a couple. The more documents you present to show your marriage is real, the easier it will be for the officer to approve your case.
Some types of documents are also more persuasive than others. For example, birth certificates of your children, mortgage statements for your shared home, and life insurance policies showing one of you as the other’s beneficiary are much more persuasive than photographs of the two of you together, your joint residential lease , and your joint utility bills. They are harder to fake and are practically non-existent in sham marriages.
No matter the circumstances, you must avoid submitting any fabricated, false, forged or altered documents to USCIS. This could lead USCIS to find that you committed fraud or willful misrepresentation of material facts to obtain immigration benefits. This would require you to obtain a waiver of inadmissibility to obtain the green card (even if you managed to get the I-130 approved).
4. Take the interview seriously and prepare well for it
In marriage-based green card cases, the USCIS field office in your jurisdiction normally interviews you to verify whether your marriage is bona fide.
The officer will place you both under oath at the start of the interview. In addition to getting specific information, the officer will be observing your demeanor and your interactions with each other to determine whether you have a real marriage.
Tell the truth at the interview, even if the answers are less than ideal. Giving false testimony or misrepresenting facts at the interview is grounds for a denial. Discrepancies between your and your spouse’s testimonies and inconsistencies within your testimonies also hurt your credibility. They will cause the officer to doubt the bona fides of your marriage.
At the interview, listen carefully to the USCIS officer’s questions and respond truthfully to the questions you’re being asked. Giving too many details about your courtship and embellishing stories about your shared life can make you less believable.
There’s no need to volunteer information that was not required on the application forms and is not being asked for at the interview. While you should not give misleading information to cut off a line of inquiry from the officer, you also don’t want to open up a line of questions that could unnecessarily bring out negative information.
If you don’t understand a question, ask the officer to repeat it or rephrase it. If you don’t recall information or you’re not 100% sure of your answer, let the officer know. If you feel you’re being asked inappropriate questions, stay calm and avoid arguing with the officer. (You may ask to speak with a supervisor.)
If your first language isn’t English or if you’re not fluent in English, be sure to bring a qualified interpreter. Otherwise, you could misunderstand the officer’s questions or the officer could misunderstand your answers.
USCIS often interviews you together, but may interview each of you separately. When separate interviews are conducted, the officer will ask you each the same questions and compare your answers. If both of you tell the truth, it’s more likely that your answers will be the same or similar. Consistent testimonies help to persuade the officer that you have nothing to hide and that your marriage is bona fide.
Even bona fide married couples do not always observe, perceive or recall things the same way. For example, would you give the same answers if you were separately asked the following questions:
- Where did you first meet?
- How did you meet?
- Where did you go on your first date? When was your first date?
- How many people attended your wedding?
- What did you to to celebrate your marriage?
- Why did you get married?
- Who proposed? Where were you when marriage was proposed?
- What are your spouse’s work hours?
- What is the color of the wall in your bedroom?
- Which side of the bed do you sleep on?
- Where did you go on your last vacation together?
- Who woke up first this morning?
These are just a few of the many potential questions the officer may ask you. It helps for you and your spouse to prepare for the interview and make sure you’re on the same page when it comes to your relationship history and shared life together.
Your testimony at the interview can be the deciding factor in whether your case gets approved. Following the interview, the adjudications officer can approve the one-step petition, issue a Request for Evidence, have a site visit conducted at your claimed residence, conduct further investigation, or issue a Notice of Intent to Deny the petition.
5. Get help from an experienced immigration attorney
You’re better off consulting an attorney from the outset, before you file your one-step petition. Full representation is best, but if you cannot afford this, you want to get limited representation or consult an attorney at least once.
An experienced attorney can determine whether you qualify for a marriage-based green card, review your application forms for accuracy and completeness, advise you on the types of documents to submit to prove the bona fides of your marriage, prepare you for what to expect at the interview, and represent you at the interview. An attorney can also discuss red flags in your case and counsel you on how to address them.
At the interview, a USCIS officer who suspects the marriage is fraudulent may give the U.S. citizen an opportunity to withdraw the petition and write a statement to that effect. Having your attorney at the interview will help protect your rights and make the process more comfortable.
A diligent attorney will take notes, ask clarifying questions, and object to inappropriate lines of questioning. The attorney will also be able to give you an assessment of how the interview went and advise you on follow-up matters.
Want to hear about 5 Things to Do to Get Your Marriage-Based Green Card? Check out the video series:
Entering a bona fide marriage, establishing a life together, submitting documentation of your shared life, successfully completing the interview, and seeking advice from counsel are five key steps to getting your marriage-based green card. If you have a real marriage, you really have little to worry about. It’s just a matter of convincing USCIS that your marriage is bona fide.
USCIS may deny a one-step petition if it receives insufficient evidence of a bona fide marriage and/or if it finds that the marriage is a sham. The immigration authorities may then file removal charges against the foreign national on several grounds, such as failing to maintain lawful non-immigrant status and committing fraud to obtain immigration benefits.
A sham marriage finding is also a permanent bar to obtaining an approval of any subsequent petitions for the foreign national. So the foreign national could never get a green card based on, for example, a second immigrant petition by a new spouse or U.S. employer (unless the marriage fraud finding was overturned on appeal or on USCIS’ own reconsideration).
Marriage fraud is a crime. A person who knowingly enters into a marriage for the purpose of evading immigration laws is subject to imprisonment (up to 5 years), a fine (up to $250,000), or both.
This article provides general information only. It is based on law, regulations and policy that are subject to change. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation. Each legal case is different and case examples do not constitute a prediction or guarantee of success or failure in any other case. The sharing or receipt of this information does not create an attorney-client relationship.
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Photo by: Eva the Weaver