Sham Marriages: What is a Sham Marriage?

What is a Sham Marriage?

 Cindy Hide:                Welcome to Love, Money, and the Law. I'm Cindy Hide. The subject is sham marriages, what they are and what the consequences are to you if you are involved in one. My guest today is Kathryn Karam from Karam Immigration Law in Houston, Texas. Thank you for joining me.

Kathryn Karam:          Thank you for having me.

Cindy Hide:                So, let's jump right in. What is a sham marriage?

Kathryn Karam:          A sham marriage is a marriage that is entered into for the purposes of evading immigration law. Now, that sounds complicated, but simply, it's a marriage that's entered into specifically for someone to get an immigration benefit, not because the two people intend to establish a life together.

Cindy Hide:                So, it's simply an arrangement in order to get status here in this country, right?

Kathryn Karam:          Legal status in this country, yes.

Cindy Hide:                Alright, so what can happen to either party, if you're involved in a situation like this? What is the ... is there a penalty?

Kathryn Karam:          Yes, there are criminal penalties for participating in a sham marriage to both the foreign national and the US citizen. And so, it's really important for people to understand that this is very serious. The immigration service takes it seriously. The federal government takes it seriously, and that if you are a US citizen married to a foreign national and you are upset at them, reporting them as having participated in a sham marriage is not necessarily the solution. It might implicate you too. So, if you know that you had a relationship and it just hasn't worked out, or you and your spouse are going to go their separate ways, the solution for that is not to report them to immigration as having participated in a sham marriage because that may be something that causes consequences to you too.

Cindy Hide:                And what are the consequences to both parties?

Kathryn Karam:          So, for United States citizens and foreign nationals, there are criminal penalties that can include fines. They can also include some incarceration time, but more severely and more commonly for a foreign national, the Immigration and Nationality Act actually says that no petition can be approved for someone if they are found to have entered into or attempted to enter into a marriage that is a sham. So, what that means is that if the immigration service finds that a person who has been in a sham marriage later on, even if they're in a valid, legitimate marriage with someone, the immigration service will not approve that petition. If an employer tries to petition for them later, the immigration service will not approve it. And so, it's very important for people to understand that before they think about doing something like this, because it is not a fast track solution to legal status. And the consequences are extremely harsh because it's taken very seriously.

Cindy Hide:                So, when you say extremely harsh, is deportation a possibility?

Kathryn Karam:          It may be because if a person ... when you think about a person who's applying for legal status based on marriage, if they are found to be in a sham marriage or they were in one and so a current petition cannot be approved, they may very well be placed in removal proceedings at that point. So, that may ... the participation in a sham marriage in the past or currently may subject someone to deportation. So, that's very important for people to know. Sham marriages are, I think, something that people tend to view as a way to get the legal status you want and then move on with life. But the reality is that it's something that the immigration service looks for. It's one of the reasons why married couples go to an interview at the immigration service. It's something that, in my experience, immigration is much more sophisticated about detecting. It's something that the immigration service will look back 10 or 15 years to verify. The examples of sham marriages that we see are shocking sometimes.

Cindy Hide:                Can you give us a few examples?

Kathryn Karam:          Yes.

Cindy Hide:                So we can relate more to exactly what it is that we're talking about?

Kathryn Karam:          Yes. So, one example, the simplest form could be that someone has arrived in the United States, maybe with a visa or maybe not, but they feel that, "I need to get married to a United States citizen because that's the way to fix my papers," or "That's the way to get my status that I need." So, maybe they find someone who's willing to marry them, arrange to make some payments to them or to help them if the person has bad credit, signing off on some credit applications with them. There are different things like that that can happen and, oftentimes, the couple may have an apartment lease together, but one or the other of them doesn't really live there. Or maybe someone owns a home and one or the other of them is often somewhere else. Those are ... that's one way that this happens is that there ... it is transactional in nature and the couple really doesn't live together. They don't try to put on ... they don't make much of an effort to put on the appearance that they really live together and-

Cindy Hide:                Well, you're lying to the federal government.

Kathryn Karam:          Right, so for every form that you fill out and submit to the US government has a section at the end that says, "I declare under penalty of perjury that this is true and correct." And when you sign that, if you know it's false, you're putting yourself in harm's way right there. But then on top of that, I think a lot of people don't realize how much effort the federal government will put into detecting this. So, in the last year or so, the government will look at ... will run a credit check on each person and see where their money is going and if one or the other of them pays a lease or has a property somewhere other than what they're listing as their residence together, that raises a question. And it's not to say that just because you own another piece of real estate or something that you're in trouble. I represented a couple in which the US citizen wife had a home that was a rental income property for her, but she was able to explain that very succinctly and clearly, and to explain that she and her husband had their apartment because it was closer to both of their workplaces, and that the house served as rental income for them. That was fine.

Kathryn Karam:          But there are reasons that the credit checks are run. It's to see where are people spending their money? So, that's one example is people who transact the marriage and see if they can make it through.

Kathryn Karam:          Another one is that you have a foreign national in their home country and they're married to someone there and these two divorce and the person finds ... makes their way to the United States, find someone here, marries them, maybe the person they find here knows what's going on and knows that they're a part of it and maybe they don't. But at any rate, you have a foreign national divorce their spouse overseas, come here, marry a United States citizen, go through the immigration process, and they may successfully complete it. They may ... if they're really living in the same place and there's nothing apparently off, they might be able to get through.

Kathryn Karam:          That later on when this person has had their green card for several years and they're thinking, "Okay, it's time for me to apply for citizenship. I'm going to live here long term." It's amazing what the immigration service will dig up. So, I have seen the immigration service find out that after this person and their US citizen spouse went their separate ways, that this person and their original spouse from overseas reconnected in the United States, had a child together, took a trip together. It's amazing what they'll find out that takes place in different cities or it doesn't seem to have anything to do with what they already decided. Just because you've made it through the process of the marriage based green card process doesn't mean that those problems won't come back to you later on because they can. You're really not fooling anybody if you were married to someone, you suddenly divorced them, marry someone else in rapid succession after that. It looks suspicious no matter what, and ...

Cindy Hide:                Well, from a family law perspective, that happens not infrequently, I can say that.

Kathryn Karam:          It does happen, you're right.

Cindy Hide:                But when you have an international flavor involved, I can see where the immigration authorities would look a little farther, so ...

Kathryn Karam:          Well, and it's ... I will also say this, that I have represented people who divorced their spouse and married someone else very soon afterward and this is part of the job of the immigration counsel to really interview the people and determine if we believe it, if we believe what they're saying, or if we have issues with it. Because if we do, the government will also have issues with the marriage. But also the fact that a person remarries quickly after a divorce in and of itself is not ... it doesn't mean it's a sham marriage or that the government will decide that. That can look suspicious, and if it's something that has just happened, as it sometimes does, to be aware of that and be ready to work with someone to be able to show the validity of the marriage.

Cindy Hide:                Okay. Excellent information. Thank you very much. Let's switch topics right now and discuss what happens when someone is able to enter the country illegally. They slipped through the immigration process one way or the other, and here they are with no papers. What happens when you have no papers?

Kathryn Karam:          Well, oftentimes if a person doesn't have any documentation or any proof that there are other ways to work, if they go to certain employers and the employers are doing what they're supposed to do in verifying someone's eligibility to be employed by ... there's a form called an I-9 that employers are supposed to complete, and they're supposed to ask for an employee, a prospective employee to produce documentation showing they're authorized to work. So, if they go to an employer that follows that process like they're supposed to, if they have nothing, they will not get offered the job. For that reason, some people might produce a fake ID or a fake social security card or something that will not be detected just by looking at it so that they can try to start working somewhere.

Cindy Hide:                Would an employer have any exposure, any liability there for accepting, on its face, what appears to be a valid social security card or some other form of identification, but it's actually not? What does an employer do? I mean, is there any exposure there for that person?

Kathryn Karam:          There's exposure for the employer if they had actual knowledge or constructive knowledge that the person was not authorized to work. If the document appears valid on its face and there's no reason to doubt it, the employer really has to be careful because by asking for something else, they may be committing what's called employment discrimination in the process of verifying someone's employment eligibility. So, an employer really needs to understand that if they take a document that is valid on its face and there's no reason to doubt its authenticity, that should be okay unless they have actual knowledge or constructive knowledge that the person really isn't authorized to work. And for that reason, because there are these two things to navigate: complying with employment verification requirements and then not discriminating, it's a really good idea for an employer to work with immigration counsel on verifying the eligibility of their employees so that they know what to do and where the boundaries are. So, that's something that some people do specifically is employment verification and I-9 compliance.

Kathryn Karam:          But going back to the person who doesn't have authorization to work who's trying to get a job, if they're not going to obtain some kind of false document and use it to work, they may go work somewhere where they will be paid in cash. And this happens frequently in certain industries. It happens in construction, it happens in hospitality, people being able to provide services one on one to someone: repairs, and landscaping, and babysitting, and childcare, and being an nanny. Those are all things that people may be able to find a job where they were paid in cash. They may even be able to find a job where they're not supposed to be paid in cash at all, but the employer's willing to do it and that's what they end up doing, and-

Cindy Hide:                And the employer's still got exposure there if this is discovered at some point.

Kathryn Karam:          Yes. Yes. Yes, that's true.

Cindy Hide:                Okay. Anything else to add about this particular topic?

Kathryn Karam:          I can say that if a person comes into the country without authorization, that marrying someone is not going to solve all their problems-

Cindy Hide:                Good point.

Kathryn Karam:          ... that when someone has entered the country without authorization, in many cases, they will not be eligible to get long term status here just by virtue of marrying someone, and so people may not understand that and it's really important for people to know that you have to be choosing to marry someone because you want to marry someone, not because you're trying to solve an immigration problem. Excuse me. So, it's important for people to know that, that marrying someone who is a US citizen doesn't solve all the problems in the immigration world.

Kathryn Karam:          Also, I would say that it's really important for people to know that when you're looking at your options and how you entered the country comes into play, it's very important to be candid with your immigration attorney about it. If you passed through a checkpoint and you didn't have anything on you authorizing you to go in, you need to tell your attorney that because sometimes that's a very significant detail. Sometimes it's very helpful.

Cindy Hide:                The details are so important. And it's also extremely critical that when ... if you do retain an attorney that you are always truthful with your attorney and disclose all the facts of your case, whether they're good or bad. Because the worst thing that can happen is that you discover halfway through your representation that someone didn't tell you the other half of the story or there were critical facts that are missing. So, in order to really represent your client, we have to have all the information, good and bad, favorable, unfavorable. So, we know what we're working with, so ...

Kathryn Karam:          Definitely. In immigration, there are a lot of things that people decide won't be recorded anywhere, "because no one stopped and asked me about it. I didn't get caught, so no one knows this happened, so I just won't mention it." It's surprising how these things get discovered. I don't really know how they get discovered. I just know that they do. So, everybody has to understand that omitting information when you're talking to your attorney is not helping because it's surprising what the US government will find out and use against you. Your attorney has to know that. So, you're exactly right.

Cindy Hide:                Okay. Thank you, Kathryn, very much for sharing all your brilliant knowledge and all insights into this particular issue. So, that's it for Love, Money, and the Law today. I want to thank Kathryn Karam of Karam Immigration Law in Houston, Texas for being my guest. Thank you for joining me. See you next time.