What's a Little Marriage Fraud Between Amigos?

It's a felony, sure, but in the absence of real immigration reform, some young, assimilated illegal immigrants see it as their best path to citizenship.

Immigration reform has been a low priority for the Obama administration, as even the suggestion of any type of amnesty, no matter how limited or punitive, would further inflame his already-mobilized opponents for the upcoming November election season. On July 1, Barack Obama gave a speech on immigration reform that veered between hailing the humanity of illegal immigrants while simultaneously demanding they pay for breaking the law. “We have to demand responsibility from people living here illegally,” the president told an audience at American University in St. Louis. “They must be required to admit that they broke the law. They should be required to register, pay their taxes, pay a fine and learn English.”

With no hopes of legalizing their status any time soon and any substantial immigration reform having been stalled in Congress for more than a decade, some young illegal immigrants in recent years have decided to enter into fake marriages in the hope of expediting the process. They’re doing it with the help of friends and relatives who have gone through the process before.

“You reach this point where you figure, ‘Why not?’” Jose says outside the din of the Quiet Cannon hall. He and Josefa had gone outside to catch some air. “[Young illegal immigrants] all reach that breaking point. We have a sense that we shouldn’t succumb to something false. We want to be honest. But nothing’s getting better.”

Doug Boehm
Doug Boehm

“It’s bullshit,” Josefa adds. “Why shouldn’t Jose be a citizen? But if the government won’t help him legally, well, I’ll just have to help him beat the system.”

*     *     *

“I wouldn’t call it a movement,” says Juana. “Yeah, I know about six girls who married guys to help them legalize and a couple of guys who did the same for girls. But some really liked them; others got paid. I wished a bunch of Chicanas got together to help out our undocumented hombres adjust their status. But it’s tough to pull off.”

Juana sits at a Starbucks in Dana Point, her raven-black hair pulled tightly into a bun. She rarely thinks about her marriage to Juan—they finalized their divorce two years ago, and she’s now engaged to her longtime boyfriend. But Juana remembers all the details of their time together. “How could you not?” she asks as she nibbles on a cheese Danish. “I’m so proud that we were able to pull through because it was tough.”

The now-34-year-old met Juan when the two attended classes at Orange Coast College early last decade. A native of Michoacán, he entered the United States in 1988 along with his parents, who were fleeing people they owed money to. Juan was 8 at the time, and he entered the country before his parents using his U.S.-born cousin’s birth certificate; his mom and dad followed a month later. Two years passed before the uncle they lived with in Santa Ana sponsored them in an attempt to attain permanent residency for the three.

Their case dragged on for 13 years until 2003, when Juan’s parents were finally awarded permanent residency status. But their son’s claim was denied—the lawyer who represented the family told them that a clause in American immigration law stated that anyone who turned 21 while awaiting notification on a joint petition with their family had to refile on their own and start over.

“Talked about fucked-up,” Juana says. “When I heard that, I told him, ‘Well, if the system is going to fuck you over, then let’s fuck it up.’” She had experience with la migra: Both of her parents came to the United States illegally during the 1970s from Zacatecas, as part of that state’s massive exodus to Southern California. Juana was born in the San Fernando Valley in 1976; her family moved to Anaheim during the 1980s. Her parents eventually qualified for amnesty under the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli bill.

“I know how hard the life is of illegal immigrants,” Juana says. “My parents were mojados [wetbacks], and people from our ranchos have come over illegally ever since my parents did it. But they were lucky—the amnesty helped them. Juan was a dear friend with no chance of amnesty—how could I not help him?”

They married in a civil ceremony in 2005, but they had moved in together a year earlier and opened a joint banking account just in case investigators wondered why they married so suddenly. All along, Juan and Juana dated other people, but she would only go out on double dates, and they always sat next to each other to keep up the illusion in public.

The two figured that after their final interview with the immigration officer, they were safe from further investigation. “We had a party at my house, and we still were thinking of living together just in case anyone had a problem,” she says.

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