By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
All immigration officers are trained in the Byzantine clauses of immigration law, in fraud detection and in how to ask the right questions during the all-important interview with couples. But Flores—who conducted such interviews for nearly a decade—says USCIS has no set guidelines for agents to determine what questions to ask or physical tics to note.
She scoffs at the idea that immigration officers will target anyone who appears jittery during the interview. “Most anyone who comes to a federal office for something so important, they’ll be nervous. When I go to the DMV, I’m nervous. But it depends. It depends on how the interview is going,” Flores says. “It depends on the officer, and then we make a determination at that point whether we’re convinced. If there’s no other problem with the case, then we’ll approve it. But we see so many cases, so it’s hard to pinpoint a specific [warning flag that pertains to all couples].”
If the interviewer suspects fraud, he or she forwards the case to another group of specially trained officers that conducts further investigations, like tracking financial records or visiting homes or workplaces in what Flores calls “site visits.”
USCIS doesn’t keep separate records for marriage fraud from its general statistics on immigration fraud, but The New York Times reviewed agency records for a June 11 article and determined that, nationwide, USCIS rejected only about 8 percent of the 241,154 marriage petitions filed by citizens for their immigrant spouses last year. Flores says she has never noticed a rise or a decline in the number of fake marriages or an increase in young people attempting them. “When it comes down to marriage fraud, it’s not exclusive to anyone,” she says. “The number of them has stayed pretty level.”
It has been nearly 15 years since her last interview, but she does remember people breaking down in front of her and admitting their attempted fraud.
When USCIS determines a case is phony, the agency forwards it to the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) bureau, which prosecutes those cases in conjunction with the United States Attorney’s Office. Flores is not sympathetic to people who commit the crime, no matter the circumstance. “The penalties for marriage fraud are written on the back of the I-130 petition,” Flores notes. “We’re not the prosecuting branch of the service; we just do the denial. But the next level shows no mercy.”
Flores isn’t exaggerating. In 2005, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Santa Ana indicted 44 individuals, most of them Vietnamese Americans, for marriage fraud after completing a years-long investigation dubbed Operation Newlywed Game. The scam involved American citizens marrying Vietnamese and Chinese nationals, most of whom paid tens of thousands of dollars to enter the fake marriages. Among those arrested were students from Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine. Everyone charged pleaded guilty; sentences ranged from 33 months in federal prison to probation.
Such high-profile cases notwithstanding, the amount of marriage-fraud cases the U.S. Attorney’s office prosecutes each year in Southern California is “a small number, a single-digit number,” says spokesman Thom Mrozek. “We’ll prosecute cases when the evidence warrants a criminal prosecution.” The U.S. Attorney’s office doesn’t keep track of how many such cases it pursues, he says, but Mrozek could say “with confidence” that “almost all of the ones [ICE and CIS] send along get prosecuted.”
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“If it wasn’t a friend, I’d say let’s do it right now,” Jose says. He and Josefa are at another wedding, this one in the City of Industry. A DJ is playing cumbias as the two stand outside to escape the sauna inside the banquet hall. “I don’t want to get Josefa in trouble, or get myself into a situation I can’t control.”
“It’ll be fine,” she shoots back with a laugh.
“Not always,” he replies.
He remembers the case of a friend who, despite getting married, wasn’t able to process his legal status because he refused to return to Mexico per the law. “If you came to this country illegally like me and want to get a green card through marriage, you have to turn yourself in to immigration authorities, and they interview you in San Diego, then toss you back,” Jose says. “And then you have to wait there until they say you can return, if ever. If it’s a small time, I don’t mind—it’ll be a vacation. But if it’s more than a year, I won’t do it. I wouldn’t know what to do for so long in Mexico.
“And that’s the thing,” he adds. “Right now, we don’t know. We need to get a lawyer.”