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Statutes of Liberty: What is Marriage for Immigration Purposes?

This sponsored column is by James Montana, Esq., Doran Shemin, Esq. and Laura Lorenzo, Esq., practicing attorneys at Steelyard LLC, an immigration-focused law firm located in Arlington, Virginia. The legal information given here is general in nature. If you want legal advice, contact James for an appointment.

The answer to the question “What is love?” was answered authoritatively by the philosophical collective known as Haddaway in 1993. Love is “Baby Don’t Hurt Me — Don’t Hurt Me — No More.” Marriage is different. Marriage is a legal matter. And in the world of immigration law, the question “what is marriage?” has a surprisingly complex answer.

Immigrant visa applicants, if the foreign spouse is abroad, and adjustment of status applicants, if the foreign spouse is in the United States, must prove, by submitting a valid certificate of marriage, that they are legally married to a United States citizen or a lawful permanent resident.

If the person has been married before, they need to prove that the previous marriage was properly terminated before getting married to their current spouse. Therefore, having a divorce decree from the proper authorities is extremely important.

To make our lives easier, the Department of State provides a list of civil documents it deems acceptable for every country in the world. However, real life situations won’t always fit the descriptions given in a list. Often, we encounter numerous obstacles when trying to prove a client is legally married or not.

Below are some examples of issues we frequently have to deal with:

  • Traditional/customary marriages: These marriages are usually legally binding in the countries where they are performed but because their registration is not required by law, they don’t leave a paper trail.
  • Religious marriages: In some countries, lovebirds can show up at a place of worship and be married by a minister of their faith. While they have a “certificate” issued by the minister or church, the question is whether that place of worship or its minister is properly authorized to celebrate marriages.
  • Proxy marriages: These are marriages where one member of the couple isn’t physically present for the marriage or where the couple is virtually present but in different places (think Zoom or any similar platform). The challenge with these marriages is that to prove their validity In the United States, one has to prove that the marriage was later consummated. (What sort of evidence would you ask for? — Ed.)
  • Polygamy: Polygamy is acceptable and legal in many countries and cultures, but it is flatly illegal in the United States. Therefore, those who are practicing polygamy will not be able to file a petition for their spouse(s) or, in the event that the polygamist is the immigrant, the immigrant will not be allowed to come to the United States.

In these cases, proving a marriage is valid (or not) requires intensive research and often a lot of back and forth with the government. This is all to say that if you are getting married, make sure you’re getting the real deal. If you are already married and trying to bring a loved one to the United States or seeking an immigration benefit and you are not sure about your marital status, consult with a trusted attorney.

As always, we’re glad to respond to questions from readers.

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