It’s a great formula for a romantic comedy – two strangers enter into an agreement to defraud the U.S. government by faking a marriage (but their reasons are pure and just!) Then they study for the marriage interview. What color is his toothbrush? How many packets of ketchup does she use on her fries? If they pass, the green card war is won. If one of them forgets the name of the cleaning product the other uses on the kitchen floor, they are toast.
For whatever reason, the public is generally fascinated by the marriage green card interview. So what’s true and what’s actually immigration urban legend?
The marriage interview in real life…
Yes, a government official actually does quiz the couple on various personal details of their lives. Typically, about 10-15 minutes’ worth of questions are first asked to one of the spouses privately, and then the official spot-checks the second spouse by asking for very specific details they have uncovered from talking with the first spouse. This process takes place on camera and under oath, of course. Typical questions have to do with the other spouse’s daily schedule and shared activities such as how the couple celebrated previous holidays or birthdays. The bizarre or embarrassingly personal questions asked on TV are rarely, if ever, asked in real life. And people can say, “I don’t know” or “I can’t remember” and still pass the interview. Most real married couples actually don’t know the color of each others’ toothbrushes, either.
It’s important to keep in mind that a large part of the investigation of the relationship can be done online these days, so officials don’t rely solely on the interview as they may have in the past. By the time a couple gets to the interview, the official most likely already knows enough to believe that they will pass… or to ambush them with all of the questionable stuff that was uncovered (no pressure).
Fraud investigations: The stuff movies are made of
Although most couples will go through the standard vanilla interview, some couples who have raised red flags are referred to special fraud investigators who use much more interesting tactics more worthy of Hollywood. Investigators have been known to show up at a couple’s house at 6:30 in the morning to see if they are there together getting ready for their day, or to pay a surprise visit to the parents of the citizen spouse and see if they can make an instantaneous identification of the foreign spouse in a photo. (Hint: If your parents look confused, your case is not going to be approved!)
The interview and the “automatic” green card
Everybody knows that all an immigrant has to do is marry a U.S. citizen and pass the all-important interview to get a green card, right? Actually, proving that your marriage is legit by passing the interview will get your marriage petition approved, but the petition is unfortunately just the first step in a complicated, bureaucratic process.
After that initial hurdle, the immigrant will go through more steps to find out whether they are disqualified from actually getting the green card despite their approved petition. There is a long list of barriers that includes everything from having a criminal history to previous violations of immigration laws to being a Communist or Nazi to having an infectious disease to practicing polygamy. Although the government is probably not having to turn down many people for being Nazis these days, many other things on the list are fairly commonplace. Most Americans are surprised when they find out that their foreign spouse does not qualify for a green card, in many cases where the foreign spouse does not even have a criminal history.
A word for TV writers
Entertainment is for entertainment, and we certainly don’t expect the public to be entertained by the practice of law as it actually happens in real life. But if you are looking for a juicy plot in the marriage interview context, your best bet may be a story about the personal lives of the government officials rather than the marriage interview process. Or maybe about an official who interviews someone in a fake marriage who the official met earlier that same day by chance on the subway and fell instantly in love with, creating a tragic love triangle…