By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
The names of the couples in this story have been changed to protect their identities.
If Juan and Juana were going to stage a fake marriage to help Juan get his green card, the two of them figured, they might as well treat some friends to a great meal.
They invited eight of their closest pals—four guys, four girls, people whom they could trust with a felony—to dinner at Thai Nakorn in Garden Grove. A dress code was enforced: men in suits, or at least long-sleeved shirts, and women in dresses. No slacks, no heels, no curry.
Over plates of nam sod and fried trout, washed down with some beers, Juan and Juana enjoyed an evening out with amigos. She wore an off-white strapless dress; he, a suit bought off the rack at Men’s Wearhouse, his first. Juana’s friend snapped photographs throughout the night—at one point, Juan stood up to propose a toast so the friend could take the shot, but he merely posed for the camera, mouth open, and said nothing. Everyone laughed, as the disposable camera flashed and whirred onto the next frame.
The following day, the group drove to the Old Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana, wearing the same clothes from the faux banquet. They posed for pictures at the western entrance of the historic building, on the steps near the marriage license office. In pairs, just the guys, just the girls, just the couple, everyone together. Juan even pulled off the garter belt from Juana’s thigh for a photo—the first time he ever placed his hands within a foot of her nether regions. Friends developed the photos at CVS Pharmacy, the better to play the part of poor kids in love.
A week later, Juan and Juana sat down for an interview with an officer in the Santa Ana offices of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the government agency that handles requests by migrants to enter this country. They weren’t nervous—years of close, platonic friendship meant they knew each other’s stories, and they had consulted with friends and relatives who had staged fake weddings as well. They were prepared. Not even the penalties for marriage fraud—automatic deportation for the offending immigrant, a ban from ever applying again for legal entry into the United States, up to five years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine—made them sweat. Much.
They showed the officer the pictures from Thai Nakorn, from family gatherings. Holding hands. Kissing.
The agent’s questions were accusatory when they weren’t outright skeptical.
Where were your parents for such an important ceremony? she asked the two. In Mexico.
Wouldn’t they have flown up for the occasion? Yes, but we’re having the actual celebration down there.
What about other family? They know this is just a civil ceremony and will fly down to Mexico for the real celebration.
And when is that? Near Christmas.
But that’s six months away. We know, but that’s when our families go down to visit.
Why not hold it here?
Juan and Juana didn’t look at each other—instead, they literally bit their tongues. The officer silently flipped through the photos. After about an hour of questions and photo-browsing, the officer put the pictures down. “That was a really nice dress you wore, Juana,” she said. “Hope your wedding in Mexico goes well.”
There would be no more investigations, the two thought. The ruse was a success. That night, Juan and Juana invited their respective lovers over to their house for a celebration.
* * *
The banquet hall at the Quiet Cannon in Montebello is in bedlam. An 18-piece banda sinaloense, its brass section and bass drum so loud you can hear the music from the parking lot down the hill,booms through “La Víbora de la Mar” (“The Sea Snake”). It’s a jaunty children’s tune played during Mexican weddings that finds grown men and women engaging in a version of “London Bridge Is Falling Down,” except participants race around the dance floor progressively faster and faster, hands interlocked, under the arms of the bride and groom.
Josefa claps along with the crowd. This is her favorite part of weddings, but she hasn’t joined any snaking lines for the past couple of months. The 24-year-old is still single, still searching for a guy who will sweep her off her feet like a bad Anne Hathaway chick flick. But she must subsume her heart’s desires for the foreseeable future—she has a fiance.
Jose is holding her hand, awkwardly. He wears a long-sleeved checkered shirt, wrinkled khakis and black dress shoes. His brow is moist; they’ve danced all night, but close observation of the two would’ve revealed no romantic chemistry.
Jose is gay. Nevertheless, the two are getting married. A 26-year-old illegal immigrant who came to this country when he was 13, Jose hasn’t been back to his native Mexico City since leaving. He’s assimilated down to his love of Beyoncé and horn-rimmed glasses. He did everything a young migrant is supposed to do in the United States: graduated high school near the top of his class and finished college magna cum laude. But Jose’s degree in business from Cal State Fullerton is worthless without the legal means to work, so the Stanton resident earns a living by working the books for his cousin’s landscaping service. He dreams of becoming an accountant but must wait, one of the millions of illegal immigrants who came to this country as children, knowing little of the native lands they left long ago yet relegated to a perverse limbo in which they are culturally, but not legally, Americans.
Immigration reform has been a low priority for the Obama administration, as even the suggestion of any type of amnesty, no matter how limited or punitive, would further inflame his already-mobilized opponents for the upcoming November election season. On July 1, Barack Obama gave a speech on immigration reform that veered between hailing the humanity of illegal immigrants while simultaneously demanding they pay for breaking the law. “We have to demand responsibility from people living here illegally,” the president told an audience at American University in St. Louis. “They must be required to admit that they broke the law. They should be required to register, pay their taxes, pay a fine and learn English.”
With no hopes of legalizing their status any time soon and any substantial immigration reform having been stalled in Congress for more than a decade, some young illegal immigrants in recent years have decided to enter into fake marriages in the hope of expediting the process. They’re doing it with the help of friends and relatives who have gone through the process before.
“You reach this point where you figure, ‘Why not?’” Jose says outside the din of the Quiet Cannon hall. He and Josefa had gone outside to catch some air. “[Young illegal immigrants] all reach that breaking point. We have a sense that we shouldn’t succumb to something false. We want to be honest. But nothing’s getting better.”
“It’s bullshit,” Josefa adds. “Why shouldn’t Jose be a citizen? But if the government won’t help him legally, well, I’ll just have to help him beat the system.”
* * *
“I wouldn’t call it a movement,” says Juana. “Yeah, I know about six girls who married guys to help them legalize and a couple of guys who did the same for girls. But some really liked them; others got paid. I wished a bunch of Chicanas got together to help out our undocumented hombres adjust their status. But it’s tough to pull off.”
Juana sits at a Starbucks in Dana Point, her raven-black hair pulled tightly into a bun. She rarely thinks about her marriage to Juan—they finalized their divorce two years ago, and she’s now engaged to her longtime boyfriend. But Juana remembers all the details of their time together. “How could you not?” she asks as she nibbles on a cheese Danish. “I’m so proud that we were able to pull through because it was tough.”
The now-34-year-old met Juan when the two attended classes at Orange Coast College early last decade. A native of Michoacán, he entered the United States in 1988 along with his parents, who were fleeing people they owed money to. Juan was 8 at the time, and he entered the country before his parents using his U.S.-born cousin’s birth certificate; his mom and dad followed a month later. Two years passed before the uncle they lived with in Santa Ana sponsored them in an attempt to attain permanent residency for the three.
Their case dragged on for 13 years until 2003, when Juan’s parents were finally awarded permanent residency status. But their son’s claim was denied—the lawyer who represented the family told them that a clause in American immigration law stated that anyone who turned 21 while awaiting notification on a joint petition with their family had to refile on their own and start over.
“Talked about fucked-up,” Juana says. “When I heard that, I told him, ‘Well, if the system is going to fuck you over, then let’s fuck it up.’” She had experience with la migra: Both of her parents came to the United States illegally during the 1970s from Zacatecas, as part of that state’s massive exodus to Southern California. Juana was born in the San Fernando Valley in 1976; her family moved to Anaheim during the 1980s. Her parents eventually qualified for amnesty under the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli bill.
“I know how hard the life is of illegal immigrants,” Juana says. “My parents were mojados [wetbacks], and people from our ranchos have come over illegally ever since my parents did it. But they were lucky—the amnesty helped them. Juan was a dear friend with no chance of amnesty—how could I not help him?”
They married in a civil ceremony in 2005, but they had moved in together a year earlier and opened a joint banking account just in case investigators wondered why they married so suddenly. All along, Juan and Juana dated other people, but she would only go out on double dates, and they always sat next to each other to keep up the illusion in public.
The two figured that after their final interview with the immigration officer, they were safe from further investigation. “We had a party at my house, and we still were thinking of living together just in case anyone had a problem,” she says.
Each shacked up with their lovers for the night in their respective bedrooms and remained in post-coital bliss the next morning when a loud knock on the front door pierced the 7 a.m. calm. It was an immigration officer flashing a badge.
Panicked, Juan ran to his bedroom and told his girlfriend to enter Juana’s room; there, he told Juana’s boyfriend to join his girlfriend in the bedroom’s walk-in closet. The boxer-clad Juan slipped on some shorts and a T-shirt and answered the door.
The immigration officer was annoyed—there were three cars parked outside; you guys only own two. Who does the third belong to?
A guy hooked up with a girl and left her car here for the night, Juan explained as Juana emerged from the bathroom, recently wetted hair bundled tight in a towel. The officer showed himself into the house and walked toward Juan’s bedroom. The bed was unmade—who had slept here? A friend did a couple of nights ago, and I haven’t had the time to make the bed, Juana replied.
They moved on to Juana’s bedroom, where the immigration officer saw pictures of her and Juan together, the same ones they had showed the day before to another officer but framed and larger. All along, their lovers hid in the closet and heard everything.
“My girlfriend said she wanted to hyperventilate,” Juan recalls during a phone conversation with the Weekly.
“My boyfriend wanted to piss,” Juana remembers.
After about half an hour, the immigration officer left. Two months later, Juan received a letter in the mail from the government that his application was approved. He’s now a permanent resident and is working toward his citizenship.
Juana divorced Juan in 2008, citing irreconcilable differences. They had a perfect cover for that, too: Juan was moving to the East Coast to attend graduate school. They still keep in touch—Juana and her boyfriend attended Juan’s graduation a couple of weeks ago.
“My guy was a trooper,” Juana says, referring to her now-fiance. “He didn’t get too jealous, even if that meant we had to sacrifice some of our own time over those years. He understood—he even says he would’ve done it if someone needs that help.” She claims she and Juan never experienced any romantic feelings toward each other. “We were really good friends who supported each other. Even when we kissed for the cameras, it was just acting. It obviously worked.”
“I owe my life to Juana,” Juan says. “We never slipped. Imagine if we did?”
* * *
Jose and Josefa are looking for wedding bands inside the Asian Gardens Mall in Little Saigon. They’ve already picked a date in November for their fake wedding and a venue for their party. The two plan to move in soon and open a joint bank account. But Juan doesn’t plan to apply for his residency until 2012.
“I’ve heard that if you wait for a year, it won’t seem like we did it just for the green card,” Jose says, as they leave one jewelry shop for another. “It’ll seem as if we’re actually two kids in love.”
In a way, they are. Jose entered this country in 1997, not knowing a word of English. One of the first friends he made in junior high was Josefa, who also kept his sexuality a secret through high school and into college. “I always knew about my legal status, but I figured that at some point, it would fix itself,” Jose said. “I figured that by the time I graduated, something would happen, whether the DREAM Act or amnesty or something. As cheesy as it sounds, I just figured I’d go on with my life to the fullest that I can, and it would all work out.”
But despair set in earlier this year, when a close friend of his was caught in an immigration checkpoint in the Midwest and is now fighting deportation hearings. Jose had about $5,000 in the bank, and he decided he’d pay a woman whom his sister-in-law knew to marry him. The day they were supposed to meet and discuss the proposition, Jose didn’t show.
“I’ve heard too many horror stories,” he said. He then tells the story of a friend of his mother’s: “He married a black woman, paying her $2,000. This was about 10 years ago. She still calls him every couple of months, threatening to go to immigration unless he pays her more money. He’s stuck in a nightmare.
“Besides, if I was going to marry someone,” he adds, “it would be because I actually like the person, not just to save myself.”
Jose didn’t tell Josefa about his plans to pay someone to marry him. A couple of weeks ago, they were stuck on the 101 freeway, returning from a night of bar-hopping in Hollywood, talking to let the time go by. There was a silence, and then she blurted, “Why aren’t we getting married?” They had never brought up the subject before. He laughed it off. The following day, she called him again and asked.
“You don’t have to do it,” he said.
“I’m doing it for the movement,” she replied. “And for you.”
“I had to think about it for a couple of days,” Jose admits. “I didn’t think she was serious.” Over the next couple of days, the two talked about the next few years—what they would face, what they needed to do, how their lives would change.
“He’s a sweet guy—how can I not help him?” she now says. “He’s like a brother. It’ll be easy.”
Juan laughs nervously. Two of his friends pulled off a fake marriage, but it ended up ruining their relationship.
Roberto and Roberta first met in the same social circles of work, though from different strata. She was a secretary for a law firm, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who had succeeded in this country; he was a janitor who cleaned the offices of Roberta’s company. After months of friendly chitchat, he gathered the nerve to ask Roberta on a date. It turned into a brief, passionate, stormy relationship. The main problem: Her parents didn’t approve.
“They try to portray themselves as liberals, but they’re as prejudiced as Minutemen,” Roberta says with a dejected, disgusted tone. “Flat-out, they didn’t like that he was poor and dark-skinned.”
Their fling didn’t last, but Roberta wanted to help Roberto with his legal status. His case was simpler than most: Though an illegal immigrant, his family had come to the United States from Mexico City on a visa when he was 7 and just never left. U.S. immigration law allows such illegal immigrants to remain in the country after they get married and start the process to legalize their status.
Besides, Roberto offered to pay all of Roberta’s bills during their marriage. But she remained skeptical. “I sat down with him,” she says, “and told Roberto, ‘I want you to know that our past is the past. If something happens in the future, it happens. But let’s keep things in check. Let’s approach this like a job.’”
They married in 2002, both of them just 20 years old, and only had to go through one interview, with no follow-up investigation. Living together rekindled their passion, but it only lasted a couple of months. He continued to love her; she moved on. But Roberto wouldn’t take the message. “He became jealous and possessive—I couldn’t even go out with friends, let alone find someone I truly liked,” she says. “But at the same time, I couldn’t get too angry at him because I made a commitment to help him. He’s a good guy, and I’m glad I helped him out, but it was a nightmare for me.”
When she asked him to formally divorce her so she could move on with her life, he refused. It took $2,000 to convince him otherwise.
They finally divorced last year. Roberta hasn’t spoken with him since.
* * *
For immigrants in Orange County trying to attain their green cards through marriage, interviews take place at the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) field office in Santa Ana’s Civic Center. USCIS’s District 23 covers Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. Approximately 200 immigration officers work the area—home to one of the largest concentrations of immigrants (legal and illegal) in the United States—trying to detect immigration fraud of all kinds.
Chief of staff for District 23 is Martha Flores, who has worked with USCIS since 1982. She seems like a kind woman, and she is quoted often in Southern California newspapers after swearing-in ceremonies for new American citizens. But ask her about illegal immigrants and marriage, and she’s matter-of-fact.
“If they want to adjust their status, they have to have had a legal entry into this country,” says Flores, who works out of USCIS’s district headquarters in Los Angeles. “If they [came on a visa that expired], they can adjust it here. If they entered this country illegally—well, they’re not supposed to be here, and if they fell head over heels in love, they have to go back to their own country, and they have to do the visa process abroad like everyone else.”
Illegal immigrants who get married and want to become legal residents must file two forms with USCIS: Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status, and Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative. After their submittal (and payment of fees of $355 for the former, more than $1,000 for the latter) and subsequent review by immigration officers, couples must go through a follow-up interview. Commonly called a Stokes interview, after the 1975 fraud case Stokes v. INS, couples answer questions posed by an investigator to determine whether this is a legitimate marriage or one of convenience.
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.”
* * *
“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.”
“It’s unfair,” Josefa says. “You go your whole life, you’re working with the system and pay taxes. You try to be the best citizen you can be, but to have a stupid clause fuck it over, it’s unfair.”
She admits she’s afraid of getting caught. “But we’re putting our faith on the fact it will work out—it has to,” she says.
“If I don’t do this now, I don’t know how long I can do this,” Jose says. “I can’t live a double life anymore.”
The banda sinaloense returns from its break. “I like this song—let’s dance,” Josefa tells Jose. Her fake-gold engagement ring sparkles as they enter the hall and rush toward the stage. They hold each other, coordinate their steps and join the dance-floor swirl.
This article appeared in print as "Make a Run for the Altar: With immigration reform stalled, some young, assimilated illegal immigrants are entering sham marriages with a little help from their friends."