Marrying a 20-year visa overstayer
November 20, 2006 3:36 PM   Subscribe

My girlfriend is a very illegal immigrant living in the United States. When we get married, what will the residency process be like?

About 25 years ago, my girlfriend (let's call her Jane) moved to the US from the Pacific Islands with her father, mother, and siblings. From what I understand of the situation, her father was on an L1 visa and the rest of the family were on L2s, all temporary visas. Those visas expired within a couple years of their immigration, and yet they have lived their lives here illegally for over 20 years. (Jane has a SSN and a passport that her father obtained for her while she was still too young to understand the particulars.)

Jane was in grade school at the time of her move to the United States. She went on to finish high school, get multiple degrees from a very prestigious university, and has worked for the last ten years at a very large US company.

Jane has been living illegally in this country for two-thirds of her life. She was a child when she moved here, and has no attachments to and few memories of her "home country". As far as she's concerned, the United States is the only home she's ever known.

Jane and I have been together for a while now, and I don't see us separating anytime soon. We live together, we do everything together, we have a beautiful dog we love very much - we're your typical DINKWAD couple. Neither one of us is religious, so marriage is little more than a legal construct involving the consolidation of assets, as well as a social affirmation of mutual affection. The whole "rest of your life together" thing - we've always just assumed that as a given.

Two things have happened that have made her illegal status more pressing:
1. We'd like to go on an international vacation together, but if we leave the country, she will likely not be able to return.
2. Her boss is pressuring her to go on an out-of-the-country business trip. (Her employer does not know about her status.)

So now to my questions: When we get married (I'm a full-bred citizen), what should we expect her residency/citizenship process to be like? If we're already married, can she be deported because of her lifelong illegal status? How long after filing for residency status will we be able to take our first vacation together? Will she have to worry about USCIS interfering with or jeopardizing her current employment? I understand from previous similar AskMeFi threads that it's a very bad idea to tell any lies to USCIS. What if they ask about her family? Can information gathered during her residency application process result in her family being deported?

Without any doubt, her situation is delicate, and we do plan to hire an immigration attorney. In the meantime, I would like to be prepared with as much information as I possibly can.

Thank you for any advice you can give.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (28 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
According to the USCIS, once you marry her, you have preferential treatment. However, the USCIS must still approve her application and, post 9/11, they are getting a bit more difficult. However, as your legal wife, her past should not be an issue. However, they will do a criminal check as well as look at their list of suspected terrorists so if either shows positive there will be problems. Your hiring of an attorney is a good idea. If you are in the DC area, I can recommend one (email in profile).
posted by TheRaven at 3:58 PM on November 20, 2006


I think if you marry her,she goes to the fast lane in the application for green card

the links below should clarify all the stuff

http://www.shusterman.com/marriage.html
http://www.usimmigrationsupport.org/greencard_marriage.html
posted by radsqd at 3:58 PM on November 20, 2006


Talk to an immigration lawyer. As I understand it even if you got married she could be barred from the US permanently for having lived here so long illegally; they can certainly keep her out for some number of years before letting her return. You need a pro to handle this.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:59 PM on November 20, 2006


Lobster - even if she came here as a child?
posted by Sassyfras at 4:01 PM on November 20, 2006


Also, I have a pair of friends who are going through a similar situation. They got married a couple of years ago and are still waiting for her green card. I think it can go faster than that, but don't count on it.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:02 PM on November 20, 2006


Jane has a SSN and a passport that her father obtained for her while she was still too young to understand the particulars

If I'm reading this correctly, Jane holds a US Passport.

If this is a genuine state-department issued document, and not a forgery, then she is a U.S. citizen or U.S. National (American Samoan?), and she has all the rights to live and work in the US that someone born there does. That's part of what the Passport represents -- it is not just a travel document. SSNs are issued to temporary residents, but passports are not.

If she entered the country before 1982, and was here in 1987 she may be one of the 2.6 million people who partook in the amnesty program offered by the Immigration Reform and Control Act.

Get thee to an attorney, with as much supporting documentation as you can put your hands on. They will know much more about what to tell USCIS, and when. Also if there's someone else from her family with more details on "the particulars", now would be a good time to talk to them.
posted by toxic at 4:05 PM on November 20, 2006


Sassyfras: I don't know all the ins and outs - that's why they need to talk to a lawyer. The reason for my first comment was the situation of a different pair of friends. She had come to the US on a student visa, overstayed it, and for a while it looked like if she went home, she wouldn't be allowed to come back into the US for 3 years even if she married her partner. As people were buzzing around her offering support, I heard other horror stories of similar bars -- which were third hand and I can't remember the details anyway. But the point is, not to panic, but not to blow it off as "they wouldn't be so unreasonable as to keep her out if she's lived here her whole life".
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:05 PM on November 20, 2006


IAAL, and my firm does immigration. Just have every scrap of information ready for your lawyer. Don't listen to anyone here, they are all well-meaning, but this is a question for a paid professional and the answer will likely determine the future shape of both of your lives. It is an answer you need to get right the first time.
posted by Ironmouth at 4:20 PM on November 20, 2006 [4 favorites]


If you run into serious problems, where you think USCIS is deliberately trying to screw you, call your congressman's office. They can and often will help in situations like this.

Depending on the "Pacific Island" her family originally came from, she may in fact not actually be illegal. As mentioned above, the fact that she has a passport tends to suggest that this is the case.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:25 PM on November 20, 2006


You've already said you're hiring an immigration attorney. I don't know what other advice anyone is going to give you.

Handle it with care. If this is handled incorrectly, it is not only possible but likely that Jane will be arrested, imprisoned in an INS, errr, HomeSec prison, and deported, possibly without any real chance to plead her case.

As regards 1. and 2., it will not be possible for her to leave the U.S. and be guaranteed readmittance for some years. You should probably forget about either of these things for now.

You say she has an SSN and passport. This is not possible for illegal immigrants. I assume they are both falsified. Unless... well, you say Pacific Islands, which is very broad, but includes some U.S. territories. If she was born in, say, Guam, things will be a lot easier.
posted by jellicle at 4:30 PM on November 20, 2006


When we get married (I'm a full-bred citizen), what should we expect her residency/citizenship process to be like?

Rougher and more expensive than normal.

If we're already married, can she be deported because of her lifelong illegal status?

Depends on what she's done and the mood of the officers you deal with. USCIS usually turns a blind eye to just being out of status. But if she's ever submitted false paperwork or otherwise committed fraud, that's bad. Talk to an immigration lawyer.

How long after filing for residency status will we be able to take our first vacation together?

Assuming she's not a citizen: when she has her green card. Years. Conceivably, when she has advance parole, but this is too serious to fuck around with given the propensity of USCIS border agents to be assholes. Stay in the US until she has a green card, or until you discover that she's actually a citizen.

The rest: ask an immigration lawyer. Especially if she has a US passport -- either she's actually a US citizen and doesn't know it, or it's a forgery and that's very bad, or she or her parents lied to get it for her and that's also bad.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:32 PM on November 20, 2006


Yep, definitely go with a good immigration lawyer. Once upon a time I married an illegal alien. It didn't work out and we had an ugly divorce (generated by me) before the alloted time ran out and he didn't yet have an official green card. A lot of expenses later, he is here, a citizen, and married to someone from his country (which I think was the plan all along) which got her a green card also. That lawyer managed all that for him.
posted by WaterSprite at 5:06 PM on November 20, 2006


Simply marrying an undocumented or out-of-status alien does not guarantee her a green card or safeguard that person from deportation. The NYT on Nov. 12 ran a story about a preacher who married an undocumented Honduran woman. They had two kids. Then she applied for a green card and got deported. She can reapply in 10 years (Immigration was esp. hard on her b/c she'd already been deported once). The story's went behind the NYTSelect paywall, but not before some advocacy group cut and pasted it to their site. Quoting an Immigration official: "When a legal immigrant is sponsored by an American spouse, she said, the green card can be obtained in as little as six months. But with complications like an illegal entry, laws are not that benevolent, Ms. Sebrechts said. In those cases, the immigrant usually must return to the home country and wait 3 to 10 years to apply for residency, though waivers are sometimes granted."

See a lawyer, ASAP. In addition to the whole green-card marriage issue, your girlfriend needs some serious legal advice about how to deal with her employer, who might soon learn he's hired an illegal immigrant.
posted by hhc5 at 5:52 PM on November 20, 2006


Just weighing in to say ditto to Rou as usual. You will have a hard row to hoe and you will not be taking any trips abroad for a while.

Jane has already lied to CIS, unfortunately. She had to fill out the I-9 for her job and to do this she had to knowingly present a false document.

The Passport puzzles me though. What type of PP is this? How is it that it is 20 years old, issued to a child and not expired? This just doesn't make sense.

The SSN I can see, there was a time that she was not an "illegal alien" but they do not give US passports to foreign nationals.

Last bit of advice I have is start documenting your lives together now. Save cute little emails, save receipts for joint bills, save love letters, save joint bank statements and apartment leases, save photos from the two of you at Disneyworld under a big sign that says, "2006", photos of the two of you celebrating New Years 2007 together in a public place under a big sign that shows that it is January 1st, 2007.

Later you will use all this stuff to show that you have been together for years and that it is not just a marriage of convenience for her immigration's sake.

I'm at hotmail if you are willing to share more details or if you want to know more about my details before you want to share.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:56 PM on November 20, 2006


Not to be an alarmist, but when they start asking questions about your girlfriend's status could it put the rest of her family at risk? You really need to see an immigration lawyer.
posted by JackFlash at 7:11 PM on November 20, 2006


Ironmouth: "Just have every scrap of information ready for your lawyer. Don't listen to anyone here, they are all well-meaning, but this is a question for a paid professional and the answer will likely determine the future shape of both of your lives."

I want to echo this. I worked for an immigration-law firm as well, although briefly. First, and foremost, keep records. Whether or not one gets to stay in the US is decided by a judge based on (a) the law and (b) the contribution a person has made and will make to society. Records of employment, of paying taxes, of fiscal responsibility, of community action: these are the things that might be helpful. Gather paystubs, tax records, driver's licenses, club membership cards, important reciepts, and anything else you can on Jane. It might come in handy.

Also, don't be too alarmed. The stories we hear through the news are usually the fucked up ones. Just, please, go see a lawyer; only they can tell you if the situation is bad or good.
posted by koeselitz at 7:21 PM on November 20, 2006 [1 favorite]


Also:

"Can information gathered during her residency application process result in her family being deported?"

We clearly aren't sure, and I don't think we can tell you for sure. But one thing is certain: a lawyer can. And you should know that talking to an immigration lawyer can't, repeat cannot result in her family being deported. You probably know about lawyer-client priviledge, but you should remember it. Talking to a lawyer is a safe thing to do.
posted by koeselitz at 7:25 PM on November 20, 2006


I'm jumping into this a bit late, but I would suggest finding a good immigration attorney and asking them the questions you are asking us. A good attorney will get you through this long, tedious and probably expensive process.
posted by punkrockrat at 7:27 PM on November 20, 2006


I guess this is kind of semantic, but you girlfriend's passport is surely expired. They only last 10 years, so her passport is useless, right? Maybe I'm missing something.
posted by folara at 9:17 PM on November 20, 2006


[Passports] only last 10 years, so her passport is useless, right? Maybe I'm missing something

It's useless for travel.

However, it is still considered valid ID and evidence of being allowed to live, work and study in the US (since it's evidence that the holder is a US Citizen or National, and that status doesn't expire). It's also enough of a proof of citizenship to get a renewed passport with no other documentation, no matter how old it is.

The work authorization part is on page three of the I-9 form, and the renewal stuff is on the apply for a passport in person pages.

This, of course, is assuming the passport is not forged and wasn't obtained through false pretenses.

Again, find a lawyer, and find out the circumstances that got her passport issued.
posted by toxic at 10:01 PM on November 20, 2006


Get an immigration lawyer, now. I've known people who had much easier situations and they needed a lawyer; you're likely not going to be able to navigate the system without professional help.


and...

marriage is little more than a legal construct involving the consolidation of assets, as well as a social affirmation of mutual affection.

Wow, a real romantic, you are.
posted by Doohickie at 10:06 PM on November 20, 2006


Everybody's said it but it bears repeating: Get a lawyer involved now. Make sure you get one who's handled a case like yours before.
posted by Opposite George at 10:37 PM on November 20, 2006


Thanks for the clarification, toxic.
posted by folara at 10:56 PM on November 20, 2006


dittoing: Lawyer

and
Steven Beestees advice is good:

If you run into serious problems, where you think USCIS is deliberately trying to screw you, call your congressman's office. They can and often will help in situations like this
.


I had a friend who was kept from getting a H1B renewal because of 'security screening'. It took him 12 weeks to get back in. 11 weeks for the papers to sit on the desk of USCIS, and the last week where the friends wife FINALLY got to shmooze personally with the congressman. One phone call a day later - boom....USCIS wakes up: FBI is given a prod: 24hrs later he has his visa. Start making those contacts with people who know your congressman now......
posted by lalochezia at 11:01 PM on November 20, 2006


A congressperson can get a file reveiwed quicker, true, or can help with open an appeal, but they cannot help change the out come of a situation. If CIS has made a decision the congressperson will just get a lengthy explaination of exactly why your GF and her family are being deported, excuse me, removed.

If you go down this road, look to your local congress-critters, of course, but you may also want to look for hill people that have had Pacific Islander "issues" as their pet projects in the past. May I suggest Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI)?

I'm curious though, what sorts of situations might exist where one might "think USCIS is deliberately trying to screw" them? I've dealt with them for many years but I don't know of a single instance where they were deliberately just trying to screw someone. I've known them to be bureaucratic asswipes and unbending sticklers, but never malicious (at least not to applicants, no comment about policy meetings or internal office politics).
posted by Pollomacho at 11:47 PM on November 20, 2006


From our anonymous thread poster (I am acting as a go between):

In response to the several questions asking about Jane's passport: this was a misunderstanding of my own. She *does* have a SSN, but does not have a US passport. I actually breathed a sigh of relief when I confirmed that with her tonight, as having a document such as that would surely have been evidence of forgery or misrepresentation, at least.

In response to everyone who echoes the need for an attorney: we have every intention of seeking the counsel of a good immigration attorney within the next month, but I feel the need to educate myself as thoroughly as possible before doing so. In part, it is my own need to feel prepared and calm my nerves. Hiring an attorney and embarking on what is sure to become an arduous process is not something I take lightly, and I believe we should be mentally, emotionally, and financially prepared before doing so. Without a doubt, our case is one that can only be safely handled by someone well-trained and well-versed in immigration law and existing precedents.

Thank you to everyone who has offered advice and reassurance, as well as tales of caution. These is certainly part of the "preparation" I'm referring to.

In response to Doohickie's "a real romantic, you are":
Love is something we certainly don't need marriage to give us, and romance comes in many forms, unique from person to person. In such a beautifully diverse community as this, I'm sure I'm in like company when I say that traditional expressions and views aren't the only ways to share love, devotion and romance with our partners. In reality, the "social affirmation" I mention is truly a big deal. Choosing to make public your intentions to remain together without end is nothing to scoff at, even if your love has always privately shared that common goal.

My post is rather direct because when it comes to protecting the one I love, I'm all business. The prospect of having her taken away from me is not something I feel I can treat whimsically when I have practical questions that need answers in order to keep her safely by my side. If you'd like to read some beautiful stories about engagements, take a look at one of these threads:
http://ask.metafilter.com/mefi/51310
http://ask.metafilter.com/mefi/35763

Perhaps when I'm no longer worried about losing the woman for whom my world turns, I will be able to freely add our own story to the collection at a time when these legal matters are in the past, footnotes to a more beautiful tale.

Thank you and regards,
-anonymous


And a PS:

The "Pacific Islands" she hails from are not a US territory or under US control. They are an independent nation.

Unlike the article that hhc5 mentions, Jane has not left the US once since coming here as a child. From my (admittedly incomplete) understanding, the 3- or 10-year bans cannot take effect until the illegal immigrant has been deported or left the country of their own volition at least once. Certainly one for the lawyer, and leaving the country is not something we would chance until we know for sure it won't adversely affect her status.

-anon

posted by Pollomacho at 11:54 PM on November 20, 2006


First, I would urge the OP to take any advice here with a grain of salt. Immigration law is constantly changing, and what's true today may not be so tomorrow.

As an immigration attorney, I can tell you that if you go to a lawyer and explain your situation, they have no obligation whatsoever to report your GF's family to USCIS. So, there is really no issue with her family getting sold down the river while she's getting processed.

Next, based on the facts you've given, your GF shouldn't have too much trouble getting her permanent residence. I've seen folks who blatantly lied in order to get a student visa to get into the US so they could get married. If they can get naturalized, so can your GF.

The only potential roadblock I can see is if she ever lied and said she was a US citizen on Federal financial aid applications or other official documents of that nature. That might make things more complicated, because falsely holding yourself out as a US citizen is a big no-no.

Good luck on everything.
posted by reenum at 8:53 AM on November 21, 2006



One thing I don't think anyone's mentioned: There's a good chance that, during the process of becoming a legal resident, there will be a period of some months during which your sweetie will not be legally authorized to work. Make sure you ask about this when you see the attorney. You may need to be prepared to do without her income for a while.

My husband and I went through a (far less complicated) version of this when we got married and we've come out on the other side undeported and unscathed. Best of luck.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 9:33 PM on November 27, 2006


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