“I Do”
(Need A Green Card, That Is)

By Cinelle Ariola • Apr 30th, 2008 • Category: Features, Public Affairs

The Filipino wedding was a joyous affair. Despite the heat of that August afternoon two years ago, a whole pig turned on a spit in the backyard. Trays of adobo (a vinegar-based poultry dish), pancit molo (seafood dumpling soup) and savory fried rice kept the guests refilling their plates while glasses of sago, a chilled tapioca pearl drink, cooled them off.

Friends of the couple, who had met just two months before, exchanged besos, kisses, from midday to midnight, and the couple, Ken, a petite and brown-eyed Filipina with cropped hair, and Mario, a cheerful, baby-faced 30-year-old ESL school liaison officer, thanked their guests by capping the evening with a karaoke duet on Jim Brickman’s romantic ballad The Gift.

A joyous affair indeed, celebrating the fact that Ken had won – not her lover’s heart — but a green card.

If you need to stay here to live, you will do anything,Ken said.

Legal immigration status in the U.S. is one of the most coveted items in the world. Foreigners flock to the United States seeking better opportunities. However, having a tourist visa does not guarantee employment and permanent residence. Marriage to an American citizen, never mind the love part, is the quick, permanent way to a shot at the American Dream.

That is, if you don’t get caught.

Marrying someone to win legal immigration status for them may seem innocent or good-hearted, but to US immigration officials, it is a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Foreigners caught in sham marriages are deported and forever banned from the U.S.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is taking the problem seriously. Marriage fraud cases increased from 2,300 in 2004 to 3,434 in 2006, according to Janice Kephart, Chief Investigator for ICE, and the immigration department is carrying on the fight with 11 new operational divisions.

But Ken and Mario (who asked that their last names be withheld) are willing to take the risk.

For Mario, an office clerk at a computer and ESL school in Midtown Manhattan, who earns less than $24,000 a year, the $10,000 marriage “reward” came in handy. Half went to his parents in the Philippines, and the other half into his bank account.

Ken works as a nanny for the two toddlers of a wealthy Park Avenue couple. She lives in Woodside, Queens with Glenda, her partner of five years. It was Glenda who recommended Ken for the nanny position, and Glenda works for the couple too – one nanny per child. Ken said they know about her marriage to Mario and her relationship with Glenda, and support both. They want their children’s caregivers to be solid members of the family and that means being established residents of the US.

Ken and Mario met at a common friend’s farewell party in Woodside, Queens in March 2006, three years after Ken’s tourist visa expired. She has been living and working illegally in the US since June 2003. Val Ariola, the party’s host (and brother of this reporter), introduced them, realizing that Mario’s financial problems could be the answer to Ken’s immigration dilemma.

The pair was exchanging tales of misfortune. Ken couldn’t claim health benefits because of her illegal status; Mario was straining for cash to feed and educate one brothers and two sisters back in Manila. Ariola butted into the conversation, saying “Pakasal nalang kayo para maayos lahat” (“Just get married so everything will get settled.”) A month after meeting, they followed his advice and registered for a civil ceremony.

With gaining permanent immigration status such a pressing issue within foreign communities, the subject comes up regularly at parties and after church.

“People know that people can help and that others volunteer marriage for money reasons,” Ken said.

But by no means is marriage fraud generally a person-to-person affair. There is big money to be made, and gangs form to rake it in. This kind of operation involves facilitators, recruiters, petitioners, and beneficiaries,as an immigration official recently told The Filipino Reporter.

Recruiters find the petitioners, prospects willing to be paid to marry a foreigner for money. Recruiters typically make $1,000 for the job. Petitioners take in about $16,000.

The facilitators do the heavy lifting, crafting documentary evidence of the genuine relationship.

They submit visa petitions on behalf of the petitioner and coach them about what to say in green-card application interviews. They produce pictures of the wedding, trips, the couple’s home and their families for submission to USCIS. There can also be fabricated love letters, fraudulent joint tax returns, joint lease agreements, bank accounts, and written statements testifying to the authenticity of the marriage from friends and relatives. Married couples also must prove that they are living together, which means most fake couples move in together for about two years.

Facilitators receive from $2,000 to $60,000 for full-service schemes.

For their “marital home,” Ken and Mario transformed Ariola’s basement into an impromptu stage. A living room set and a dining table were assembled for a day-long photo shoot. Pictures of them cuddling in front of the TV and eating dinner were submitted to USCIS, along with their visa petition documents. Ken hesitated to live under the same roof with Mario, even if it were temporary and there was no sex, because Glenda was not comfortable with her sharing a home with another person – particularly a man.

Most petitioners who work outside the facilitatedscheme meet their foreign beneficiaries through word-of-mouth or online classified sites such as Craigslist.

It was a posting on Craigslist that led to a major marriage fraud bust last year.

Benjamin Claude Adams, a US citizen and Yuliya Mikhailovna Kalinina, a Russian national, were arrested at their homes after U.S. immigration agents in Los Angeles spotted Kalininas Craigslist web posting. Los Angeles officials said Adams met Kalinina after responding to an online ad on Craigslist, promising a “reward” for prospective husbands of up to $15,000.

Online advertisements, offering video clips of young women announcing their need for an American spouse and terms of compensation are posted by nationals of countries other than the Philippines and Russia, such as the Ukraine, Guiana and Egypt.

Michael J. Gurfinkel, a Filipino-American immigration lawyer, has helped hundreds of clients achieve permanent residence. With offices in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco — cities with high concentrations of Filipino immigrants — according to his website, he is known as the “Attorney of Last Hope” and “Miracle Worker.” In May 1999, Gurfinkel won fame in the Filipino community for helping Christopher De Leon, six-time winner of the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences award and highly regarded as one of the greatest Philippine actors of all time Gurfinkel was able to locate INS records dating back to 1918 to prove to the American embassy in Manila that De Leon, was legally considered a U.S. citizen since birth, through his grandfather and mother. After a brief interview at the embassy, De Leon was issued his passport in 15 minutes, completely bypassing the process of being petitioned, filing for naturalization, fingerprinting, and answering citizenship questions.


Newly naturalized couple huddles in with “Attorney of Hope,” Atty.Michael J. Gurfinkel at his Midtown East office after passing USCIS citizenship interview.

A barrel-chested, jovial man, Gurfinkel says, “Ours is a sacred mission. We should not view our job as simply practicing immigration law. What we do affects the most important things in our clients’ lives: their families and their future in America.”

To navigate between his desire to help his clients yet comply with US law, Gurfinkel says he only advises marriage as a citizenship opportunity when he is convinced a couple is in love. In other cases, Gurfinkel says he systematically looks for other strategies, such as helping them extend their stay with filings for Suspension of Deportation or application for a student visa.

Since their marriage, Ken and Mario never spent a single day under the same roof. They are glad to bump into each other at parties or at Ihawan, a favorite Filipino watering hole in Woodside, Queens. Their tactical relationship has transformed into friendship, and neither expects anything more than that. Ken lives contentedly with Glenda in Woodside, Queens. Mario has his eye on a soft-spoken Filipino receptionist in his office. She has a work permit.

Couples need to run through demanding obstacles in order to obtain the K-1 (spouse petition) visa, and it’s fascinating to see that most of the films produced about marriage fraud are comedies. Go to http://marriage.about.com/od/movies/tp/movimmigration.htm to see a list of these movies.

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Cinelle Ariola is a media studies major at Hunter College. She hopes to use writing to bridge her love for fashion and social justice.
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