What's His Favorite Food? Her Mom's Maiden Name? Government Cracks Down On 'Green Card Marriages'

Wedding cake
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As I type this, I’m looking at one of my most precious possessions — my green card. As some of you know, they’re not green but a creamy beige, with multiple hologram images embedded in it, including a statue of Liberty.

It has my fingerprint on it, my photo (showing my unadorned right ear) and my alien registration number. It cost me $370 to renew it recently, as we do every 10 years.

Many people, desperate for a green card they can’t get any other way, marry a U.S. citizen — and some draw the attention of the Stokes unit, which interviews couples in detail to determine whether their is a real marriage or a sham, reports The New York Times:

Having flunked their first interviews with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, they had entered the mysterious world of the “Stokes unit,” a uniquely New York variation on the marriage interviews conducted nationwide whenever a citizen seeks a green card for a foreign spouse. Named for a 1976 federal court settlement that gave couples, among other protections, the right to bring a lawyer to a second, recorded interview if their first one raised suspicions of fraud, the Stokes unit recently doubled its staff to 22 officers.

It is a story line familiar from pop culture: “The Proposal” last year, “Green Card” in 1990. And while the authorities do not question the validity of the marriage of Faisal Shahzad, the failed Times Square bomber, his arrest last month did renew questions about the process of scrutinizing spousal green-card petitions. Nationwide, the number of such petitions denied for fraud is tiny: 506 of the 241,154 filed by citizens in the last fiscal year, or two-tenths of 1 percent (an additional 7 percent were denied on other grounds, like failing to show up for an interview).

Some critics contend that the low numbers simply show the system is easily fooled, while others say that exaggerated estimates of marriage fraud over the years have created a bureaucratic monster, thwarting legitimate, if unconventional, couples and spurring unconstitutional intrusion into their lives.

In some parts of the country, the authorities stage dawn bed checks. “Someone shows up at your house with a badge and a gun, unannounced,” said Laura Lichter, an immigration lawyer in Denver. “ ‘Hi, we’re here from immigration. Do you mind if we come in to look and see if two towels are wet?’ ”

Today’s paper profiles a couple together 17 years:

“They’ve been married 8, 10 years, and they don’t know a thing about each other?” asked Barbara Felska, a veteran in the Stokes unit, the New York office that quizzes spouses separately, then compares their answers to determine whether their relationship is real. “You don’t know his medical conditions, or that he has high blood pressure?”

The predicament of Ms. Feldman and Mr. Singh reflects what legal scholars see as a growing tension in national values between the protection of marriage from government intrusion, and the regulation of marriage through immigration laws.

I got my green card because I was then the unmarried child of a U.S. citizen; some of us get them through visas and lotteries, not just snagging the first American with a pulse that we see.

These two stories raise interesting questions about what is “normal” for any couple to know about one another, and their families, and their health. My sweetie and I know one another’s PIN numbers, but after a decade continue to handle our shared bills separately with separate bank accounts. (That would look suspicious.) If I were pressed to offer details of his relatives, some would be hazy — as some of them are virtual strangers to us both, with no Christmas cards or birthday wishes, ever.

I know that he takes two daily medications and what for, but could only name one of them if asked. I know his middle names and those of his (long-dead) parents, where was born and raised. He still sometimes confuses some of my Canadian details. Privately, it doesn’t matter, but what if the harsh light of a government inspector — and possible deportation — were in the mix?

Every married couple is different. I am a deeply private person, as is my partner — I don’t rummage through his chest of drawers or closet or other storage spaces. They’re his. Nor do I poke into his wallet, or vice versa. We retain a variety of boundaries, mostly out of respect for our privacy and individuality. If married, this would likely change little.  How would that look to someone seeking to determine if we had a Normal Marriage?

Define “normal.”

Some people find such boundaries abhorrent. I knew one young couple who happily flossed their teeth in front of one another as they sat on the sofa watching TV; my partner and I had one of our worst first fights when I asked him to wait outside a small hotel room while I flossed; in my world, some activities (still) are not meant to be shared.

My two recent visits to USCIS offices were benign and, thankfully, easy. I read these articles and wonder what I’d do or say if we were called in.

9 thoughts on “What's His Favorite Food? Her Mom's Maiden Name? Government Cracks Down On 'Green Card Marriages'

    1. citifieddoug

      Hahaha! No, I’m just looking forward to threads a 42-year-old bachelor will have something to say about. (And didn’t want you to wonder if I’d been kidnapped or killed.)

  1. sewollef

    I’m noting with some interest the increasing number of stories about Green Cards and related issues.

    I too am a Green Card holder and have an interesting sidebar to the current horror stories as in today’s NY Times.

    My application commenced in 2003 and during early the following year I was given a Work Permit while my application trundled through the system. During that year I discovered that a ‘Fast Track’ Programme was in operation in major cities around the country. Despite having done all the application procedures ourselves thus far, we decided to employ the services of an immigration lawyer for a speedy resolution to the Green Card issue.

    We filled out the ‘Fast Track’ forms, paid the fees and our lawyer submitted the application. Mid-application, the programme was shut down – but only in New York. All applicants were thus left high and dry, with no ‘grandfathering in’ of those applicants who’d spent all this money and were mid-process.

    Our lawyer suggested we might want to write to the head of the Department of Homeland Security for NY to complain. After some hesitation, we thought what have we got to lose and we wrote. By February of 2005, my wife also wrote to both NY senators, Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer. Then a strange thing happened, I was contacted by a journalist for the New York Times writing about such cases and families stuck in limbo thanks to the cessation of the programme in New York.

    The NYT journalist wrote a story around our case in March of 2005 that appeared in the print and online editions of that month.

    Nothing was heard of from the head of DHS in New York, or from Senators Clinton and Schumer. Weeks went by, then in the second week of May an envelope arrived from the Immigration Service and inside was my bright, shiny new Green Card.

    Neither my wife nor I have had ANY interview prior to its issue or since. I have subsequently renewed my Green Card recently without any problems or contact from Immigration.

    Why should that be? The only supposition I can think of was: I am white, English and with a ‘typical’ English name. I feel badly for all the people having such a hard time when their marriages are also legitimate when mine seems now so problem-free by comparison.

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    That’s quite an extraordinary story. I bet it’s not unusual that a NYT story gets some things moving that were…stuck.

  3. I’m not sure my s/o could tell you my mom’s maiden name, and we were both born and raised in the U.S. I suppose it’s a luxury not to have to worry about those sorts of things, but honestly, who remembers those things about each other? I could tell you what shaving cream he prefers either.

  4. Caitlin Kelly

    The assumption of “normal” is offensive to me. People can live very different lives; that’s the whole point of a democracy.

  5. It is, and I don’t think knowing what face cream your wife uses (to snatch a scene from the movie Greencard) has any bearing on knowing who you are as a couple. At all. I don’t read his emails or watch him chat over his shoulder. My ex-husband did, and had no concept of why this bothered me. Hence part of the reason for the “ex.”

    And what about the people who meet and get married 3 months later, legitimately–far be it from me to judge–in love? I’d wager there’s a great deal they don’t know about one another, but does that make their partnership any less valid?

  6. Caitlin Kelly

    I find the whole intrusion thing creepy, but I always feel a little more vulnerable to this sort of thing because I have a green card and they can be revoked or denied. I won’t even get a speeding ticket…

    I think privacy is great…but my ex was so secretive I didn’t know half of what I should have…

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