What Happens When You Marry a Foreigner?

The hoops to jump through for a green card in New York

It used to be the stuff of romantic comedies: French illegal alien who wants a green card marries uptight environmentalist interested in New York City apartments. Hijinks, INS interviews and deportation amid professions of love ensue.

Simpler times. 

Attorneys say applying for a green card through marriage to a U.S. citizen can give an immigrant a more secure legal status. But, they add, the government has gotten better at identifying people who are actually in make-believe relationships or sham marriages. 

“Now more than ever,” says Susan Moss, founding partner of the 22-lawyer family law firm Chemtob, Moss, Forman & Beyda, “the authorities are really looking for green-card marriages.”

Attorneys aren’t bad at sussing this out, either. Michael Wildes at Wildes & Weinberg, whose father, Leon, represented John Lennon in his lawsuit against the U.S. government in the 1970s, says his firm has never lost a marriage immigration case. The key, he adds, is meeting all his prospective clients in person and making sure they’re telling the truth before agreeing to represent them. The last time he refused to handle a case?

“Last week,” he says. 

Two male roommates—a citizen and an immigrant—wanted to hire him so they could get married and the noncitizen could get a green card. But as Wildes questioned them, the citizen admitted he wasn’t actually gay; he was merely doing his roommate a favor by helping him get a green card. Wildes suggested they find a different lawyer.

But even people who are legitimately in love can be rejected if they aren’t careful.

If you’re thinking of marrying an immigrant, says Moss, save your love letters and other souvenirs of the relationship. “For a green card ... spouses must show wedding pictures, vacation pictures and other evidence indicating that they have a real relationship and a real marriage,” she says. “And if you and your spouse had a fight the night before your immigration interview, the immigrant spouse better apologize. The spouses need to create a united front.”

Hiring a lawyer to help navigate the green card process typically costs between $2,500 and $7,500, but it can dramatically increase chances of success.

Lawyers also warn that immigrants who have had past issues, such as a deportation order—or even merely overstaying a student or tourist visa—cannot expect to wipe the slate clean by marrying a citizen. 

“If you had past immigration problems, getting married will not make them disappear,” Moss says.

Indeed, according to a recent article in The New York Times, some couples have emerged elated from a hearing granting the immigrant spouse a green card, only to be met by waiting ICE officers ready to carry out earlier deportation orders. 

Moss says that once a green card is granted, the holder can still be deported for a number of reasons, including criminal offenses, failure to pay taxes or failure to file a current address with the government. Once full approval is granted, green card holders can get a divorce without losing their green card status—in most cases.

Gretchen Schumann, a founding partner of the 11-lawyer Manhattan firm Cohen Rabin Stine Schumann, says special rules still apply to “conditional” green card holders—those granted green cards after being married to an American for fewer than two years. “A divorce may jeopardize their status,” she says.

However, where the spouses cannot apply jointly to remove the conditions, a waiver process is available for legitimate marriages that go sour, she adds.

For more information on this area of law, see our immigration overview.

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