HOUSTON – Marriage to an American citizen is one of the largest categories in which an immigrant becomes a lawful permanent resident of the United States, according to data from the federal government.
In 2013, Immigration and Customs Enforcement launched a nationwide campaign to educate citizens on the dangers of marriage fraud. However, several people have come forward to claim a specific area of marriage fraud is not getting nearly enough scrutiny by the federal government.
“He was romantic and charming,” said Elena Maria Lopez, of the man she married from the Netherlands. “(I) met him through a friend while I was finishing up college and fell in love.”
Lopez's marriage ended in divorce, but she said what unfolded was far more than just a relationship that fell apart. Lopez said she is a victim of so-called one-sided, or single-scheme, marriage fraud.
“It's not a victimless crime and it's not just a simple marriage (followed by) divorce," Lopez said. "I've made life decisions based on this being a real marriage."
ICE lists one of the types of marriage fraud as being, “A foreign national defrauds a U.S. citizen who believes the marriage is legitimate.”
Brochure: Marriage fraud is a federal crime (view PDF)
Hear Lopez explain the commitment required of a U.S. citizen who is sponsoring a foreign national into the country through marriage.
Channel 2 Investigates spoke with two other women and one man who also claimed to be victims of one-sided marriage fraud.
“He was very, very charming,” Zinnany Hernandez said. “I thought that this was a good guy, and I was wrong.”
Hernandez married an Israeli-born man who, she said, changed almost immediately after they were married. She said he would disappear for several hours after his work shift ended and he never wanted to take pictures with her during rare family outings.
“He was never interested in doing anything together,” Hernandez said. “He just didn't seem like he was interested in acting like he was married.”
Hernandez said one of the greatest sources of tension was that her husband backed out on a promise to, after a small ceremony, take her home to Israel for a full wedding and to meet his family.
Hernandez said, in retrospect, she should have seen a deeper problem sooner, when her husband would never allow her to speak to his family in Israel while he was talking with them via Skype.
Hernandez said her marriage ended and, feeling threatened, she moved out of Texas -- and asked KPRC not to disclose where she now lives.
Lopez said she encountered similar broken promises of a full wedding in the Netherlands following a brief ceremony in the United States. She said, in hindsight, she realized that was a sign of problems that went deeper than a troubled marriage.
“There was always an excuse,” Lopez said.
Lopez said she too felt threatened, and claims to have been attacked by her now ex-husband. She was granted a protected, undisclosed address.
Beth Levine shared a similar experience with KPRC. Levine married a man who was originally born in Ireland.
"I thought this was someone I was going to spend the rest of my life with,” she said.
Levine said the courtship phase of her relationship was wonderful, but trouble began shortly after she was married.
“There was always something going on with him,” she said.
Levine said she pursued couple’s counseling, but eventually, her husband asked for a trial separation.
“He said, ‘I just want to get my bearings so I can find my way back to you and our life together,’” she said.
KPRC was able to contact Levine’s ex-husband.
“This was not fraud. I thought she was the one and she wasn’t,” he said. “I just fell out of love. I did not commit fraud.”
The similarities in all these accounts involve marriages that ran into trouble shortly after the ‘I do’s,’ and ended around the time the immigrant’s status in the U.S. was secure.
“I basically was a tool to reach a goal,” said a man who asked not to be identified.
This man said he met a woman from the United Arab Emirates. He said they decided to get married after his now ex-wife learned she was pregnant. He said he initially was hesitant, but he agreed to marriage when she told him she would have to go back to her home country the week their child was due to be born.
“'If I leave, then that's it, you know, you won't be able to see your child,'” he said she told him. “OK. It’s not a perfect situation, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be good situation.”
He said there was immediate trouble after they were married. He said she initially didn’t want to move into his house, and once she did move in, there was constant fighting.
“(She was) creating arguments out of nothing. I mean really nothing -- I mean, things that really didn't make any sense,” he said.
He said his now ex-wife would repeatedly call the Sheriff’s Office, claiming he was being threatening to her. However, in one Sheriff’s Office report, a deputy wrote that this man’s wife told officials that her husband, "Was only her sponsor, so she could obtain citizenship papers." The report also noted there were "no signs or allegations of violence."
When the man finally began divorce proceedings, he said, he learned his wife had filed for protection under the Violence Against Women Act. Despite its name, this act provides assistance to men and women. He said his ex-wife was claiming he was an abusive husband. Protections under this act can allow an immigrant to obtain a green card without an American citizen or lawful permanent resident being a sponsor.
Despite the allegations of abuse, a judge wrote in a Final Decree of Divorce that "there was no credible evidence presented that the husband had committed domestic violence."
"I thought, ‘Man, I’ve been a fool,’” he said. “I was basically a tool to reach a goal.”
He said when he discovered his wife applied for VAWA, he realized this was more than a bad marriage.
“It's fraud because this person never had any intention of being my spouse,” he said.
Suspecting one-sided marriage fraud is one thing. Getting an investigation launched is another matter. All four people KPRC spoke with said they filed complaints with ICE.
“I tried to get an appointment, nothing," Levine said. "I sent them the packet, nothing."
Levine said despite filing complaints against her ex-husband with ICE, she has never received a response as to whether an investigation will be launched. The other three individuals said they are still waiting to hear whether anything will come of their complaints.
Despite the difficulty in tackling this type of marriage fraud, lawmakers are taking note. In March, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, held a hearing that examined this and other types of marriage fraud. Senate leaders said all types of marriage fraud threaten national security.
You can watch that hearing here.
“Marriage remains one of the quickest paths to citizenship,” said Grassley during the hearing. “The most heartbreaking is when a foreign national dupes a U.S. citizen into believing that they're, in fact, in love.”
Lopez testified at that hearing about the difficulty she has had in getting the government to investigate her claims.
State Department records show an average of more than 30,000 people a year for the past three years came to the U.S. on a so-called fiancé visa. According to testimony from officials with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, typically, only about 12 percent of applications for these visas are denied by their agency.
A person has 90 days to become married once he or she enters the country on one of these visas.
Once married, an immigrant can then apply to become a conditional lawful permanent resident.
After two years of marriage, an immigrant can then apply to have the conditions removed.
According to ICE data, roughly a quarter of all the people who became lawful permanent residents over the past three years did so by marrying a U.S. citizen.
Lopez and others argue there needs to be more scrutiny when some of these marriages end.
In response to questions that arose from the committee hearing, USCIS officials wrote that as of April 17, 2017, they are now interviewing all immigrants who apply to adjust their status from a fiancé visa to a lawful permanent resident. USCIS officials also answered they are still reviewing more ways to detect those who are seeking marriage simply for a green card.
When KPRC contacted officials with ICE, we asked how many one-sided marriage fraud cases it handles each year, and what the agency’s protocol is for communicating with those who file these types of complaints.
The only response we received was, “These investigations are not common.”