These days, most couples share pictures online, but Garrett and Evelyn (not their real names) have a special, private folder of photos with the two of them. In one, they’re facing each other, saying their “I dos” at city hall. In another, they’re sitting on a bench in front of their home; his arm is around her, her head is on his shoulder, and they’re both smiling: the perfect image of a young, happy couple.
But Garrett and Evelyn are not, in fact, a couple at all. The photos, along with other “evidence,” like a joint bank account and a lease signed in both their names, have been carefully crafted to make their sham marriage look real. If they’re caught, they could both be charged with felonies.
Garrett is a United States citizen, born and raised in New York. He has a real girlfriend of two years, with whom he lives in New York City. Evelyn, whose native country is in East Asia, came to the US for college and married Garrett after her student visa expired and she couldn’t get a work visa. The “green card marriage” allowed Evelyn to become a lawful permanent resident in New York.
Marriage to a US citizen is one of the easiest ways for immigrants to obtain green cards (a quarter of all green cards issued in the United States are for spouses of American citizens), and according to those who have done it, marriage fraud is shockingly easy to pull off. Just this month, a Los Angeles couple was arrested for setting up more than 100 sham marriages for pay. While the scam is simple, the penalties are stiff: People who marry for the purpose of circumventing immigration laws can be charged with visa fraud, harboring an alien, and conspiracy.
Evelyn understood the law, but decided to take the risk. She and Garrett met six years ago while working in the hotel industry; Garrett was employed legally but Evelyn was being paid under the table. One day, she asked Garrett if he knew anybody who might go in on a fake green card marriage with her.
“I was just like, ‘I’ll do it,'” Garrett said. “And she was like, ‘Really, are you serious?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.'”
Garrett had heard of others in similar scenarios, and he decided to do it because Evelyn was his friend and he wanted to help her out. Plus, the money was a nice bonus.
“I gave it to her for half of the street cost,” Garrett explained. “$20,000 is the normal price tag but she paid me $10,000.” (Anecdotal sources suggest the average fee can range from $5,000 to $20,000.)
She paid in cash, giving Garrett the first half of the payment after the pair was officially married. She took care of all of the paperwork after that: opening the joint bank account, changing Garrett’s mailing address to match hers, adding a new phone line together. He got the second half of the money after the most nerve-wrecking part—the immigration interview.
When applications or petitions are filed with US Citizenship and Immigration Services, background and security checks can be used to confirm the accuracy of applicants’ information. In some cases, applications can be approved without an interview, if the relationship seems genuine enough, according to Jim McKinney, a public affairs officer for USCIS.
This was the case with Joe and Libby (not their real names), who married when Joe was 21 and Libby was 18. They were young, but they had to act fast: Joe’s one-year temporary visa was already several years expired, and he was still in the US. Joe, who’s originally from Bulgaria, couldn’t imagine going back.
The two were already dating, and while they likely wouldn’t have tied the knot so young had it not been for Joe’s immigration dilemma, the relationship was real. They were never asked to interview with an immigration officer.
“There were no red flags in our relationship,” said Libby. “I think the things [the USCIS] looks for are same age group, can communicate in the same language, live at the same address, and have stories and quirks that healthy relationships exhibit.”
Fake couples like Garrett and Evelyn, whose applications may seem more suspicious, are expected to appear at a USCIS office to meet with an immigration officer. To prep for the interview, Garrett and Evelyn wrote detailed notes about one another—the specifics that only real couples would know, like which side of the bed they each sleep on or information about their in-laws.
“I went to her place and took a whole bunch of pictures, like where little things were,” Garrett recounted. “I took a picture of the bathroom in case they [were to] ask me what color her toothbrush is—shit like that. I just wrote it down and basically studied it for a day and went to the interview.”
The USCIS doesn’t keep data on how many of these applications are denied, but according to statistics collected by the New York Times, only 506 of the 241,154 petitions filed in 2009 were denied for fraud. There’s no way to know how many fraud marriages succeed in receiving green cards. While the number of applications denied is small, the consequences are huge: There’s potential for both civil-administration and criminal consequences for green card marriages; the non-citizen gets automatically deported. Criminal prosecution in such matters is controlled by the Department of Justice and its United States Attorney’s Offices and can result in five years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine.
In addition to information obtained at the time of interview, Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate also receives marriage fraud tips. If the couple fails an interview or suspicions arise, the USCIS may conduct an administrative investigation which “may include, but is not limited to, visits to the couple’s home as well as interviews with neighbors and associates of either the beneficiary or petitioner,” according to McKinney.
In Garrett and Evelyn’s case, everything went smoothly, and Evelyn’s ten-year visa was approved. Garrett also hasn’t dealt with pushback from his actual girlfriend, Anna, who he lives with and has dated for about two years.
“She knew about it because I was ‘married’ before we started dating,” Garrett explained. “It wasn’t like in the middle of a two-year relationship, like, ‘Oh, I’m going to do this.’ There’s an understanding. It’s not like I’m going out and hanging out with my wife all the time. I hardly ever see her. I don’t think it’s an issue.”
Garrett and Evelyn have now been married for almost three years, and Evelyn will soon file for naturalization. Afterwards, they plan to eventually get divorced.
Libby and Joe, who have been married for five years, said the process required lots of money and time in fees, lawyers, interviews, and collecting paperwork for Joe’s naturalization case, but today they have a happy—even relatively normal—relationship.
“This was something I could not prepare myself for,” Libby told me. “This topic is usually hushed up, so there were no books or magazines to read from to get helpful advice, such as how to explain to your relatives why you got married so fast.” But in the end, she says it was well worth it to be with him, and for him to be in America.
Originally written for VICE: CLICK HERE FOR THE STORY.