Marriage fraud and the cruise ship piano player

Gina Bliss, The Daily Record Newswire

I heard a story about a piano player who worked on a cruise ship. He married the cruise ship’s singer in order for her to become an American citizen.

That story reminded me of the movie “The Proposal,” starring Sandra Bullock. Her character, Margaret Tate, is the editor in chief of a book publishing company. She’s about to be deported to Canada because of an expired visa so she coerces her assistant to marry her. It’s a formulaic romantic comedy, but I enjoyed it due to great casting and some very funny scenes. One scene shows her character and her fiance being interviewed by immigration officials. They’re interviewed separately, and if their answers don’t match she’ll be deported and he’ll be charged with fraud.
That scene is fairly accurate. Immigration authorities scrutinize marriage-based immigrants to determine if the marriage is “real.” A large part of the process can be a personal interview where the interviewer tries to establish intent to live in a real marital relationship.

Immigration interviewers may ask to see the couple’s house keys to see if they match. They may look at documents like bank account statements to see if the accounts are jointly held, credit card statements, rental agreements and children’s birth certificates. The questions that are asked cover the relationship but also go into day-to-day life.

So while it might be easy to plan answers for questions like how the couple met, where they went for their first date, names of extended family members and whether either spouse has scars or tattoos, some of the questioning can be very difficult to fake.

What do each of you eat for breakfast? Who keeps the garage door opener in the car? How many windows are in the bedroom? Questions like these are easy to ask and impossible to answer if you don’t really live together.

U.S. immigration law purposefully works to reunite families. Other immigrants need to have job skills that are in high demand or a close family relationship in order to apply for a green card, which grants lawful permanent residency status. The spouse of a U.S. citizen moves to the head of the line. That causes abuse. If hopeful immigrants don’t qualify in other ways, they may consider how they can marry a citizen. Marrying a friend just to become a citizen, or paying a U.S. citizen for marriage in order to obtain citizenship is fraud.

Every time that fraud is perpetrated, a criminal alien becomes an American citizen and an American citizen is drawn into a felony. Approximately 200,000 marriage-based green cards are issued each year. It’s estimated that up to 60,000 of those are fraudulent. Immigration officials just do not have the resources to properly investigate suspected marriage fraud. Even in cases where officials refer a couple for a fraud investigation the process is so cumbersome that it may never reach a U.S. attorney’s desk. If it does, the attorney may not prosecute.

An immigrant found to have committed marriage fraud is usually deported. The law also allows for criminal fines and imprisonment for both the immigrant and any citizen who knowingly participates in marriage fraud. In practice, citizens are not usually punished unless there is a systematic conspiracy to arrange multiple fraudulent marriages for fees.

Is it fair that the immigrant is usually deported and the American citizen often suffers no consequences? It must be easy to draw American citizens into this crime where penalties are unlikely, but there are large cash payments for participating.

There are also unsuspecting participants. In this age of Web-based dating, the dating scene easily becomes global. Many of us know a couple who fell in love online, and then met and married.
When half of that couple is American and the other half is from a developing country you have to wonder. Is it really about love or is about getting a green card and ultimately citizenship?

With Valentine’s Day approaching, and romance on everyone’s mind, I’d love to give you a happy ending to the story of the piano player and the singer. Unfortunately, they divorced immediately after she received citizenship. Happy endings for these stories rarely occur except at the movies.

(You can report suspicions of marriage fraud anonymously to Immigration and Customs Enforcement at 1 (866) 347-2423.)


Gina Bliss, CPA, CFE, is a senior manager at EFP Rotenberg LLP, Certified Public Accountants and Business Consultants, who specializes in internal audit, fraud audit and forensic accounting. She may be reached at (585) 295-0536 or by email at