Is Your Marriage Real? For Immigrants USCIS Has Ways to Find Out

Barbara Felska, an immigration services officer at the Stokes unit

Barbara Felska, an immigration services officer at the NY USCIS Stokes unit. (Photo: Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska)

With a lack of options to legalize their status some immigrants take desperate measures and rely on marriage frauds to get their green card. USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service) — a branch of the Department of Homeland Security that’s responsible for processing green card applications — has specific procedures to prevent this illegal practice.

The vast majority of marriage cases that go through USCIS offices are approved.  But each month in New York, some are referred to a special Stokes unit if they are suspected of fraud. Fi2W spoke to Barbara Felska, an immigration services officer at the Stokes unit to learn more about the process to determine the authenticity of a marriage between a citizen and his or her foreign spouse seeking a green card.

Felska interviews each member of a couple separately about their marriage, and then brings them together for a chance to explain any discrepancies. The special unit is named after a 1976 federal court decision (Stokes vs. INS) and the process is supposed to provide extra protection to the couple suspected of fraud (e.g. the interview must be recorded and couples can bring their lawyers).

Felska herself is a naturalized immigrant from Poland. She won a green card through the lottery and came to the US in 1996.

Fi2W: In what cases people are questioned by the Stokes unit?

BF: They could end up there for many reasons after the first interview.  But we give them this chance to prove to us that this is a good marriage. I always tell people: “you have nothing to fear when you’re here and your marriage is real.”

What kind of questions do you ask them?

I ask questions about anything that could validate that this a is married couple. And I know that if I would ask my husband about small household issues, he would get lost.  You have to understand personalities and human nature. Not knowing or not caring is not the reason that we deny those cases.  If they don’t know about the finances, I can understand it because sometimes they just don’t run those things.

Sometimes husbands get frightened because I ask them how often their wife does their laundry and they don’t know. And I say: “That’s okay sir. I just want to know your opinion.” And then I ask a wife the same question and she says for example that she does laundry every Saturday and sometimes on Wednesdays. And she adds: “but he is not going to know it, officer, he never cares about laundry.” So I see that they have this consistency for some things like laundry and I will know, “okay, I understand how this household works.” So the questions that we ask are really to give people the chance to show us how they work as a married couple.

People think that if we’ll ask like 60 questions and we’ll have correct answers to 40, they’re approved because it’s the majority of the questions. And I always say: “it’s not a math test, it’s a personal interview.” We look at what is significant to this couple.  Not knowing some details, if people explain it in the right manner, is not a problem. But if you don’t know something as substantial as your spouse’s medical condition, religion, financial assets, family members, and you don’t even know what you do together, then of course, you’re not going to be approved.

What would raise your suspicions?

How would you know that somebody is lying to you? Because the person was inconsistent. Or a person is telling you A, and on paper you have B. I just want stress this: we never deny cases because you make mistakes at the time of Stokes or because you didn’t know something. This goes into the totality of circumstances. We look at your evidence and we look at your answers and sometimes the totality is really showing us that this is not a marriage, that you’re probably friends, neighbors, roommates, maybe you went to college together, or you’re from the same country and you want to help each other… I never judge people and I don’t have the whole scenario sometimes. I only know what I see before my desk. But I will inform them that unfortunately I cannot adjudicate this application as a provable case.

How often does it happen?

It depends on the day. For some officers maybe 50-50. Each officer is different but we try to have a consistent policy (for) how we deal with those cases and consistent procedures.

Can you give an example of an interview that went badly?

Let’s say there is Mr. B and Mrs. B. So I may ask him during a separate interview: “Sir, how many tattoos on her entire body does your wife have?” And he says she doesn’t have any. Then I’m calling Mrs. B. “Could you tell me how many tattoos you have?” and Mrs. B will tell me: “I have 7 tattoos.” I say: “Mrs. B could you tell me where?” and she is telling me where does she have them and what … they represent. She would say, “Oh, I have cross, I have cherries, horseshoe… and they she would say: “Oh, officer, because of the birth of my child a tattoo artist put an image of my child’s feet onto my arm, he put the date of birth of my child and the child’s name.” And I’m almost crying how cute it is… but unfortunately Mr. B failed to describe it or lacks … knowledge of it. Then when we bring them together and I say: “Mr. B, at the separated interview your wife told me that she has 7 tattoos. She told me where are they and what … they represent. At this time I’m going to give you a chance to explain why you did not mention all seven tattoos of your wife.”

[…]We cannot fall for it. We know it’s not a bona fide marriage. I may have sympathy for them but I have to do my job. I am the immigration services officer and if you are good I’ll put this approval stamp with pleasure. But if I have to deny you, by all means I will do it. After all I do represent (the) government, this is Department of Homeland Security, and if you want to sleep safely in your home we have to make sure that every officer in this building is doing their job that we were hired to do.

As part of verifying the evidence, do you go to a couple’s residence?

We could but we would have to give an advanced notice, and then what’s the point? So we don’t do that but we review other evidence: pictures, proof of life experiences. My favorite line is that “by the end of this interview speaking to you for 40 minutes I should never know more about you sir, than your wife knows about you after being married to you for a year. If I do, then it doesn’t look good.”

The most memorable case?

We also witness some arguments, real marital arguments. I remember one about jewelry. There was this beneficiary and she had a bracelet that I really loved. And when I commented on it she said, “oh, my husband gave it to me,” and she was very elaborate on this. So I’m asking the husband about the bracelet and he said “I never gave her this bracelet.” And they had a huge argument in front of me about it.

[…] We don’t only look at the paper. Stories are very different. You may have a man who is 65 and he is married to a 25-years old woman and vice versa.  This is New York, and regardless of your own upbringing as an officer you have to know this stuff happens. Love doesn’t know skin color, age, religion. And if you’re really married you have nothing to fear. In most cases we approve applications without those long interviews at the Stokes. But a few bad cases can make all the good work disappear.

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This story will be published in Polish in Nowy Dziennik/Polish Daily News.

Fi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation.

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AboutEwa Kern-Jedrychowska
Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska was born and raised in Warsaw, Poland, and has lived in Queens, NY, since 2001. A former Feet in 2 Worlds reporter, Ewa now works as a staff reporter for covering Queens. She was formerly a reporter for Nowy Dzienik/The Polish Daily News, where she covered stories about Polish immigrants in the U.S.