Marriage Fraud: An Intimate Portrait of a Green Card Marriage


Sample permanent resident card. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Fi2W is featuring stories by students in the Feet in 2 Worlds journalism course at The New School.

When Tony told his mother he got married to an immigrant from a former Soviet republic, one of the first questions his mother asked him was, “So you got married for money?” This hurt, even though the answer was yes.

Tony is a life-long New Yorker: black and Latino. When asked how much his wife paid him, Tony said, “ten thousand dollars, but I felt guilty taking so much, so then it was seven and a half.” The payments were in cash, the largest was two thousand dollars and it was all in twenties. “And that,” said Tony in his gravelly voice “felt shady as hell.”

Although they got married for money, Tony and Anya’s relationship is a mixture of a real and fake marriage. A friend who introduced them had married a woman for money. Tony and Anya (not their real names) wed a couple of years ago.

They live apart. But on Facebook Tony’s status is “married” and his page is dotted with photos of them together. But sometimes the pretend relationship bleeds into the real one.

She has met his mother. They share bills, a phone plan and health insurance. The phone plan and health insurance are not simply because it makes the relationship appear legitimate on paper but also because he shares what he can with her.

“She wanted an iPhone 5, that’s all she could talk about. And my phone just broke. I had this option to get a second phone, and I just thought it would be easy,” is how Tony explained why he put Anya on his phone plan.

Anya said simply, “He’s a good person. I thank God everyday that I met him.”

Tony’s friends describe him as a comic book nerd; they say that he is perennially broke but generous. He’s 32 and hasn’t finished college but sprinkles his speech with literary references—it helps that he works in a bookstore.

Although he is almost always dating someone, one reason Tony got married was that he knew he had to stop dating, because none of his recent relationships had lasted more than a few months and he needed a time out. But being married has not stopped him from dating, although at some point most of his girlfriends have become fed up.

Anya, who is tall and, thin and speaks with a heavy accent, has dated with more success. She is in a serious relationship right now and her boyfriend never wants to hear about Tony.

When asked when and how their lives intersect, Tony said that they celebrated their birthdays together and sometimes they go to movies. When pressed for specifics, he said they get together, “usually when bills need to be paid, when I’m hungry and lonely, or when she needs paperwork done.”

Given their cultural differences you might wonder how Anya would mesh with the rest of Tony’s life. She gets along well with his friends. When she met his mother the two women immediately hit it off, an experience that Tony found “charming and a little scary.”

“I find it difficult to get along with my Mom,” Tony admitted. When asked what the two women talked about he said, “me and clothes and shoes and stuff…one thing I remember is they talked about how good I look when I shave. My brother and I just kind of hid in the corner.” When they left his mother’s house Tony turned to Anya and said, “sorry about my Mom, I know she can talk a lot.” Anya said that she loved meeting his Mom and reminded him that, “I talk a lot too.”

Is Tony ever attracted to Anya? Sometimes, he said, but she also reminds him of his mother, which has squashed temptation so far.

While some of this may seem like the makings of a romantic comedy, the consequences for marriage fraud are serious: a five-year prison term and a $250,000 fine. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services interviews people who marry non-U.S. citizens. Tony recalls a, “little white lady” interviewed them and he said it was the, “first time, in a long time that he was scared of a small white woman.” Despite some tense moments they passed the test.

Anya came to the U.S. for the same reasons as many immigrants. Tony said, “she wanted more,” more money, more opportunities. Although she comes from a highly educated family and has a college degree in economics, in her native country she worked as a wedding planner, earning the equivalent of about two to three hundred U.S. dollars a month. In New York she works as a waitress and makes about two to three thousand dollars a month.

I asked Tony how life would change when he gets divorced; the answer is it won’t.

He will still live with roommates, a beloved cat, and date women, except there will be only one name on his cell phone bill.

Anya’s life will change. She is already working towards a degree in nursing at a local community college. Her dreams are conventional and universal: money, marriage, and a better career.

If you enjoyed this story you may also be interested in other stories about marriage on our site.

Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation and the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation.

AboutMiranda Shafer
Miranda Shafer is a media studies graduate student at the New School. She has worked for WNYC as a production assistant for Selected Shorts and as a producer for the series "Talk to Me." She likes hot media and cold weather.