Love, Marriage, and Green Cards

For most of human history, love and marriage had positively nothing to do with each other. Marriages were arranged in order to strengthen alliances, end family feuds, and secure political power. You were lucky if you liked your spouse, let alone loved them!

In the United States today, we don’t see marriages for political power (though it’s an interesting thought experiment to think about what would happen if one of President Obama’s daughters married one of Mitt Romney’s sons). But we do see marriages that, more than likely, aren’t for love. The late Anna Nicole Smith, for example, made headlines when she married the 89-year-old oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall. She was 26 at the time. Needless to say, the union of a former Playboy model to a man 63 years her senior raised some questions—until people found out Marshall’s net worth was a cool $1.6 billion.

According to the CDC, approximately 2.1 million marriages occurred in the United States in 2011. My guess is that some of these did not happen for love.

One interesting instance of such a transaction involves a special type of immigration visa—and highlights how government policy induces people to take desperate measures to improve their lives.

A K-1 visa is issued to individuals living outside the United States and allows him or her to immigrate in order to marry a U.S. citizen. I’ve written elsewhere about the complexities of the immigration process and how for many people in developing countries, their chances to obtaining entry for work or asylum are slim to none. Even those who can obtain work visas may spend years waiting in line. This has led people to undertake dangerous journeys and send even their children thousands of miles away alone–all in hopes of a better life.

As such, it should come as no surprise that more than one person has figured out they can get to the States by marrying a U.S. citizen. This issue received some attention recently with the release of the second season of the TLC reality show, “90 Day Fiance.” As the title of the show implies, the K-1 visa allows for a foreign fiancé to enter the country, but requires he or she to marry their betrothed within three months. In nearly every case, the family members of the American were skeptical, some asking point blank if their fiancé was “just in it for the green card.”

This is not to say that everyone who is issued a K-1 visa is solely seeking citizenship, but without a doubt, some people who enter the U.S. on K-1 visas are just in it for the green card. Understandably, there isn’t data on how many marriages take place every year just so a foreigner can obtain citizenship.

This got me thinking, why would someone marry a U.S. citizen if they were just looking to enter the U.S.? Is it easier than the alternatives?

Let’s look at the process for a K-1 visa. Assume the foreign partner is just trying to get a green card.

Timeline (approx) Step Information
Varies 1.
U.S. Petitioner gathers various documents
U.S. Petitioner gathers various documents (birth certificate etc) to send with I-129F
N/A 2.
I-129f Package sent
U.S. Petitioner sends compiled I-129F package to theUSCIS Dallas Lockbox which will forward the package for processing.
2-3 Weeks 3.
1st Notice of Action (NOA)
U.S. Petitioner Receives first Notice of Action (NOA) acknowledging K-1 petition has been opened
See Processing Times 4.
2nd Notice of Action (NOA)
U.S. Petitioner Receives second Notice of Action (NOA) acknowledging K-1 petition has been approved
2 Weeks 5.
Case Forwarded by your Service Center to the National Visa Center (NVC)
Case Forwarded by your Service Center to the National Visa Center
1-4 Weeks 6.
Case Forwarded by NVC to U.S. Embassy in your fiance(e)’s country
Case Forwarded to U.S. Embassy as specified in the I-129F.
1 week 7.
Case received by Embassy from NVC
Embassy receives package and processes it. They will then prepare a letter to be sent to the foreign fiance(e).
1 week 8.
Forms and Checklist sent to Beneficiary
Forms and Checklist sent to foreign Beneficiary (Fiance/e).
Varies 9.
Foreign Beneficiary compiles required forms
Beneficiary fills in Forms and assembles various documents
N/A 10.
Completed Forms sent to Consulate
Beneficiary sends completed Forms to U.S. Embassy
N/A 11.
Fiance(e) must attend medical interview prior to interview
Attend medical appointment.
1 week to issue date 12.
U.S. Embassy issues Beneficiary with Interview date
U.S. Embassy issues Beneficiary with Interview date
1 Month to interview 13.
Beneficiary has Interview at U.S. Embassy
Beneficiary has interview at U.S. Embassy for K-1 visa. All being well case is approved.
N/A 14.
Beneficiary travels to and enters the U.S.
Beneficiary travels from their country to be with the U.S. Petitioner (Fiance(e)) in the US.
5-20 minutes 15.
Point of Entry (POE) in U.S.
Beneficiary arrives at Point of Entry (POE) in U.S. and shows K-1 to the immigration officer.
1 hour (early morning) 16.
Apply for Social Security Number
Apply for Social Security Number (SSN)
1 hour 17.
Apply for marriage certificate
Apply for marriage certificate. Must marry within 90 days of entering the U.S. on a K-1 visa.
Get married
Get married. and give each other a pat on the back. You’ve both earned it!
1 hour (early morning) 19.
Change name on SSN
Go back to the SSA office and bring your SSN Card and marriage certificate. Change your name.
Varies! 20.
Complete I-693
Complete I-693 per the K1/K3 AOS Guide. This is required so that your vaccinations can be documented properly on the I-693 as part of your completed AOS package.
(File as soon as possible once you marry)
Apply for Adjustment of Status (AOS), EAD, AP
Apply for Adjustment of Status (AOS). You should file as soon as possible. If you have not filed for AOS and your K-1 expires, you will be considered out-of-status until you file. Make all attempts to file before you become out-of-status. You may also file for your EAD and AP at this time.
See Processing Times 22.
Receive EAD / AP
Receive your EAD and AP via US Mail. You will have a biometrics appointment prior to being issued the EAD.
See Processing Times 23.
Interview for AOS (I-485 approval)
Interview appointment for AOS. When approved you will receive an I-551 stamp in your passport indicating you have been approved for AOS and will also receive your green card in the mail later.


Add to this process the following. If you are just in it for the green card, you need to find someone to marry you. You can A.) manipulate another person and trick him or her into marrying you. This takes time, effort, and spending copious amounts of time without someone for whom you have no feelings. B.) You can find someone who will agree to marry you if you pay him (The amount of money this takes varies. I’ve seen estimates from less than $10,000 to $25,000+). This requires additional time and effort, though perhaps less time  on the back end with someone you don’t really care about (though you have to fake it well enough to fool immigration). C.) You can find someone who is particularly sympathetic to your plight and get him to agree to marry you. You forgo paying them, perhaps, but still incur the costs noted above.

This process should seem insane–because it is! It requires time, money, and fraud. Yet, as economics tells us, individuals would not undertake these transactions if the benefits were not greater than the cost.

This means that the above process, all of it, is more appealing than going through the other U.S. immigration processes. If that doesn’t indicate a need to reform the current immigration system, I don’t know what does!

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Tampa.
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