Only six days after moving to the U.S., Clémentine Berlioz got married.
She didn’t have a nostalgic story of a romantic wedding proposal. She had bought her own engagement ring in her home country of France. Her family watched the ceremony — held in the backyard of her in-laws’ Mercer Island home — via Skype, laughing because her accent prevented her from perfectly echoing the minister’s vows.
“It’s definitely too early — we’re both young and stupid,” said John O’Meara, her husband, laughing as the words left his tongue.
It may not have been a fairytale wedding, but this marriage meant that Berlioz could finally live in the U.S. legally, without worrying about deportation.
For many foreigners like her, a green card marriage represents the fastest and most practical way to legally immigrate. Spouses of U.S. citizens are all but guaranteed Legal Permanent Resident status themselves (informally known as a ‘Green Card’) so long as they can convince immigration officers that their marriage is legitimate.
Despite the convenience, the decision to marry was not an easy one for Berlioz.
“In France, and especially in a big city like Paris, people are really independent,” said the 25-year-old. “It’s kind of shameful to get married too early, so being forced or urged to marry someone, even though I really love them, was scary for me.”
Between 2011 and 2013, foreign spouses of U.S. citizens made up a quarter of all green card recipients. Indeed, marriage to an American citizen remains the most common path for many foreign nationals to obtain permanent legal status.
Though overall marriage rates have been rapidly decreasing in recent years, the number of green card marriages has remained fairly high over the past decade.
But the benefits of the American wedding spread beyond keeping bi-national couples together — sometimes strangers offer their hands in marriage for good karma or cold hard cash.
Cylvia Hayes, Oregon’s first lady, recently made headlines when she admitted to a prior marriage of convenience with an Ethiopian immigrant to help him stay and study in the country. She was paid $5,000.
In 2011 only about 7,000 of the 270,000 plus applications for marriage-based green cards were denied, and only 3,924 were found to be fraudulent. Marriage fraud appears to be an increasing trend, but it’s hard to say whether that’s a reflection of more intensive scrutiny by immigration officers.
And, as O’Meara and Belioz’s case shows, there’s a lot of grey area between a green card marriage that’s completely legitimate and one that’s a total sham.
“It’s really frustrating to be an international graduate from a very prestigious school and to have to say ‘no’ to a lot of opportunities,” said Berlioz, reflecting on her own motivations for getting married. “To have to give up your personal life just because you don’t have the papers, even though you have money, knowledge, are willing to pay your taxes and aren’t going to be a burden for the country.”
Berlioz, originally from the small archipelago of New Caledonia, and O’Meara, a native Seattleite, met at the Paris Institute of Political Studies in 2011. Scrambling to find a place to stay while in school, O’Meara e-mailed Berlioz, who happened to be looking for an American exchange student to be her short-term roommate. Once they were together, O’Meara knew it was love.
“He was studying international relations and ended up in an international relation,” said Berlioz, giggling at her own joke as O’Meara recited the timeline of their courtship.
After spending his year abroad in France, O’Meara invited his girlfriend to follow him to Seattle. Securing a J-1 visa through a marketing internship with the Seattle International Film Festival, Berlioz was legally permitted to stay in America for one full year, and not a day more.
Although pursuing their relationship always felt easy, O’Meara admitted that the fear of separation brewed some dark clouds over their heads.
“The clouds were never due to us though,” explained Berlioz. “It was always due to external factors. It’s not cool to be somewhere you love, with people you love, but not being able to plan or think about the future.”
Their first plan to stay together involved acquiring a PACS, a kind of civil union only valid in France, which would permit them to live abroad for a couple of years while Berlioz built work experience and warmed up to marriage. Though O’Meara began an application to secure French permanent resident status, he had to abandon the plan since he wouldn’t have been able to work during the 12 months of processing time. Disappointed, O’Meara flew back to Seattle, where he would have to spend one year apart from his love, not counting two short visits back to France.
“We kept looking on the computer together, trying to figure out how she could stay — find some loophole,” said O’Meara. “And every little indication on the internet said ‘just get married.’ So we knew we would arrive at the point eventually.”
The forced separation finally pushed them to reach that point. While apart, the previously set sense of commitment and affection never changed, even when the nine hour time difference prevented them from coordinating quick Skype sessions to see each other. Berlioz applied for a K-1 fiancé visa and planned to return to Seattle as soon as possible.
“My priority is to be here [in America], work here, and be with John,” said Berlioz. “So I thought, ‘Screw it — let’s get married!’”
But not everyone is lucky enough to find their love before deciding to move to America. Some actively seek relationships with U.S. citizens in order to immigrate, leaving them vulnerable to Americans who might dangle the prospect of marriage in order to have a quick fling.
Then there are the foreigners who woo American spouses, only to leave them after securing their green cards.
Korál Wynn, an artist and dance instructor with Peruvian and Italian roots, can attest to the frequency of green card weddings in both his network and innermost social circle.
“Even during this conversation, the more I think about it, the more it keeps popping up,” admitted Wynn over the phone. “What about that one? What about this one? What about my father? Is that why I’m here?”
Wynn recalled a story about a good friend of his from New Orleans who had gotten married to a suave Argentinian visitor after a quickly instigated romance which spanned a couple of months. Exactly three years and a week after their wedding day, he ended the marriage, confessing that he never loved her and was leaving. At that time, the cutoff point for securing a green-card through your spouse was three years.
Having traveled all over the nation and world, Wynn has also had a lot of experience dating foreigners.
“I’ve been on both sides of the situation,” he said. “My partners have had to find jobs that were not documented in order to continue to work and have the freedom to move around, and I’ve had to figure out how to do something while in France or the U.K.”
Though he’s never been in a green card marriage himself, he recently rejected a marriage proposal from a Filipino woman he’d met online, after he came to suspect she was only interested in immigrating to America.
“Basically, she approached me and tried to convince me that she had fallen head over heels, madly in love with me,” he said. “Soon after, she promised me that we would be married and started sending me photos of wedding rings and engagement dresses.”
After the woman had booked a ticket to visit the states without consulting Wynn, he says he expressed his worry about her visit. In response, she immediately blocked and de-friended him on Facebook.
With the high influx of international students and immigrants in the Seattle area, it’s not hard to fall in love with a foreigner without even thinking about their immigration status. And even if the relationship doesn’t last, it’s easy to become sympathetic to their situation and a marriage of convenience to help a friend or former lover realize their immigration dreams.
“I made a joke… that the only difference between having a girlfriend like Clém and having a wife like Clém is that my left hand is a little heavier,” said O’Meara.
And isn’t that the case for many couples considering marriage? Whether the convenience comes in the form of relationship security, tax and health care benefits, or legal documents like a green card, people get married for all sorts of reasons. The legitimacy of a relationship is pretty subjective.