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Jun 20, 2008
What is A Marriage Under Immigration Law?
- Atty. Robert Reeves Email this article

Because many people seek to become a permanent resident through marriage, it is important to know what CIS considers a “marriage”. CIS will investigate the legal bona fides of the marriage. There are severe consequences if  the CIS determines that the marriage is a sham, including permanent banishment from the United States. 


What does CIS recognize as a bona fide and legitimate marriage? It is important that  the marriage was not entered into for the purpose of evading the immigration laws.  CIS will address the issue of “at the time of marriage, did the bride and groom intend to establish a life together?”  If they did, the marriage is bona fide.


The examining officer will look to the conduct of the parties after the marriage to prove their intent at the time of its inception, i.e. are the couple living together, do they jointly own property, are they are conducting themselves as husband and wife.  When the CIS suspects that fraud, the officer will request a field investigation.


The investigation can include such things as early morning or late night home visits and interviews with neighbors and friends. CIS will also check with the employer, the Post Office, the Department of Motor Vehicles, the County Registrar’s Office and other government agencies.


CIS recognizes proxy marriages but is very suspicious of them.  Therefore, if the marriage ceremony took place by proxy, CIS requires proof of consummation of the marriage. In other circumstances, cohabitation and consummation are not absolutely necessary.  For example, elderly couples who have separate bedrooms may still have a valid marriage for immigration purposes.


The intent of the couple is not the only test of the validity of the marriage.  It must also be legitimate.          There are many considerations for whether a marriage is legitimate.  The marriage must be valid at its inception under the laws of the place where the marriage took place.  If a state or country recognizes common law marriage, the marriage is valid for immigration purposes.  Some marriages are not automatically invalid but may be if one of the parties raises the issue.  An example of this is where one of the parties was a minor at the time the marriage took place.  Such a marriage is voidable by the minor until after he or she reaches majority.  If the marriage is not void, but voidable, the marriage may be recognized for immigration purposes. 


The legality at the place and time of inception is not the only concern.  The marriage can not be contrary to public policy or federal law.  Even though polygamy is valid in some countries, a polygamous marriage is not valid in the United States. All prior marriages must have been terminated before the parties entered into the current marriage. Under the Defense of Marriage Act, a marriage is defined as one man and one woman (bride and groom). 


Therefore, despite the fact that some states allow same-sex marriages, CIS does not recognize them for immigration purposes. If the parties had the requisite intent and the marriage is valid in the place where it was entered into and it does not violate public policy, it is valid for immigration purposes.


If no legal separation or dissolution of marriage has been obtained at the time of the petition, the CIS can not deny the petition simply because the parties are not subsequently living together.  Moreover, subsequent conduct of the parties, no matter how unconventional, does not prove lack of marital intent.  Even the death of a spouse does not automatically result in the termination of the petition if the CIS finds that, for humanitarian reasons, revocation would be improper.


While the marriage petition itself may seem very simple, the case can be very complex.  The documentation must be very thorough and should anticipate all questions that CIS will entertain about the case. For that reason, persons intending to file a marriage petition should consult with a reputable immigration firm.



Author's Note: The analysis and suggestions offered in this column do not create a lawyer-client relationship and are not a substitute for the individual legal research and personalized representation that is essential to every case.


Atty. Reeves has represented clients’ innumerous landmark immigration cases that have set new policies regarding INS action and immigrants' rights. His many successes have been published in Interpreter Releases, Immigration Briefings and AILA Monthly which are nationally recognized immigration periodicals widely read by immigration lawyers, State Department and immigration officials. His cases are also cited in text books as a guide to other immigration practitioners. His offices are located in Pasadena, San Francisco, Las Vegas and Makati City. Telephone: 759-6777 Website:






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