Brontë, an American botanist, needs a husband in order to snag an apartment exotic enough to accommodate her plants. George, a French composer, wants a wife so he can acquire the coveted green card—an ID that permits aliens to stay in the U.S. Such is the premise of the current hit film Green Card, starring Andie MacDowell and Gérard Depardieu as mismatched mates dealing in subterfuge to convince the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) that their union is legitimate.
In real life, green-card marriages are as often a source of frustration, complication and heartbreak as of romance. And laws are frequently broken. Charles Foster, who heads the American Bar Association’s Committee on Immigration Law, says green-card marriages have become a growing problem because marrying a citizen is one of the few ways an alien can easily immigrate to the U.S. “The fact is,” says Foster, “that immigration is complicated unless you have relatives here. “An innocent party in a sham marriage has no legal culpability, but anyone who knowingly participates in an illegal green-card marriage can be prosecuted and fined $250,000 and/or sentenced to five years in prison. A convicted alien faces deportation.
Foster estimates that only 30 percent of marriages involving aliens come under INS scrutiny. Still, he doesn’t recommend taking the chance. “I always tell people there are worse things than immigration problems,” says Foster. “And that’s marital problems.”
Here, some typical green-card tangles:
THEY FOUGHT THE LAW-AND WON
When clothing-store owner Prakash (Tony) Manwani and cleaning-service employee Katherina Constantino took their wedding vows in 1987 before 250 American and Indian friends in Tega Cay, S.C., no one doubted their love for each other—no one, that is, except the INS. Because the agency had initiated deportation proceedings against Tony, 28, a year earlier, INS officials assumed that he had married Kathy only for a green card and ordered him to leave the country within six months. “They said we had a fraudulent marriage without giving us a chance to defend ourselves,” says Kathy, 25. “Even a murderer has a chance in court.”
The Manwanis made sure they got to court: In January 1988, they filed suit against the INS. Two years and $20,000 in legal fees later, U.S. district court Judge James McMillan declared the 1986 Marriage Fraud Amendments unconstitutional because they did not give the Manwanis the chance to prove their marriage was legitimate. “We consider ourselves lucky to win a case like that,” says Tony. “It was a long shot.”
Tony’s immigration problems began in 1983 after he overstayed his tourist visa. That year, a friend invited him to go into the clothing business in Concord, N.C. By the time he met Kathy in a Charlotte, N.C, nightclub in 1984, he owned a half-dozen stores in the region. Although some of her friends questioned Tony’s motives in the courtship, he quickly became part of the Constantino family. “They went together for quite some time.” says Kathy’s father, David, 60. “Someone just looking for a way into this country wouldn’t go through all that.”
The couple’s battle with the INS has been costly. Because Tony sold off his stores to pay his legal fees, he manages a store he once owned. But each night when he returns home, he is greeted by his son, Alex, 2. Tony and Kathy are still waiting for the INS interview, and if all goes well, Tony will be granted the green card. His next goal is to become a U.S. citizen. “I don’t want my son to go to school,” he says, “and have his friends ask him, “So, what’s your dad?’ ‘Oh, he’s an illegal.’ ”
THEY RACED TO THE ALTAR
Nancy Greene, 43, describes her 18-month green-card union with Luis Fosados, 33, as a marriage of both love and convenience. Greene, director of student health at Regis College in Denver, met Fosados, an architect, in 1983 while she was giving a stress-management retreat in Mazatlan, Mexico. For the next three years, they continued to see each other every three months. In 1987, says Greene, “we needed to do something. We realized we were in love.”
Eventually, Luis moved to Boulder, Colo., to live with Nancy and began job hunting. “I thought it would be real easy with my experience to move to the U.S.,” he recalls. “Well, it wasn’t.” Because he lacked a green card, Luis couldn’t get a job in his chosen field—or any other. “This started to scare me,” he recalls. “I thought we better get married in a couple weeks.”
“I wasn’t prepared to get married then,” says Greene. “I was sort of in shock.” But in September 1989, they wed in Boulder.
Even with a green card, which he obtained a few weeks after the ceremony, Luis had a frustrating time finding work. After two months, he got jobs sweeping floors at Regis College and washing dishes at a Boulder hotel. “It was a very hard time for us,” says Luis.
Today his situation is finally improving. Last May he enrolled in a master’s program in architecture at the University of Colorado, Denver, and next month, says Nancy, they plan to return to Mazatlan for a “big Catholic wedding. This is our real wedding, the one we would have had.”
HE MADE A SPLIT DECISION
Li Lin, 27, is standing over the open flames in the kitchen of the Magic China Restaurant in Waco. Texas, exulting over the 120-day extension the INS has just granted him on his green card. It is a long way—and many difficulties—from his hometown of Canton, China.
Lin says his problems with the INS began after his marriage to Miao E, 25, fell apart five months ago. Li and Miao E, who had emigrated here in the mid-1980s, married in Canton in 1987 and six months later moved to Albuquerque, N. Mcx., where her family owned two restaurants. Li, awarded a green card, took a job as a cook while his wife worked as a waitress and cashier. But the marriage was rocky, and Li became increasingly unhappy living with his in-laws. Last September, he moved to Waco, where his cousin Ping Sun Siu runs a restaurant, and filed for divorce.
Such short-lived marriages are a red flag to the INS. Now Lin must prove not only that the marriage was legitimate but that the divorce was too. Lin was finally granted an extension when a friend appealed to Rep. Chet Edwards of Texas, who interceded with the INS. In April, Lin hopes the INS will renew his green card. “One day I would like to go to an American college,” he says. “I want to live here and not have to go back to China.”
SHE MARRIED FOR MONEY
Four years ago Cheryl White, 44, took a job as a waitress at a Pizza Inn in Houston. But within months the Iranian manager, Gholemreza Garbi, cut her hours and salary in half. A single parent, with a son, Christopher, 16, White was desperate and making only $40 a week. “Hell, you can’t support a kid on that,” she says.
Her financial situation led the twice-divorced Cheryl to consider Garbi’s offer to make some money by marrying a friend of his who needed a green card. “I told him I’d think about it,” she says, “and I did for about a half hour.” That same night, she was introduced to Bahman Ghaffari, whom she married in 1986. Cheryl agreed to attend INS hearings, file joint tax returns, open a joint checking account and allow Ghaffari, a country-club chef, to receive mail at her home address.
“I was ignorant,” says White. “All I asked for was $350, because that’s all I needed for that month’s rent.” That $350 bought her a lot of trouble. Ghaffari continued to live with his Iranian wife (whom he had divorced to marry White) and their two children, but White accompanied him to deportation hearings. When Ghaffari came by to collect his mail, he would ask her for sexual favors and pressure her to name other women who would marry for money. “The last straw was when he went behind my back and asked my son if he’d marry an Iranian girl for money,” says White.
In October 1987, White turned herself in to the INS. To avoid prosecution, she agreed to work undercover. “On several occasions I went to [Pizza Inn] with an INS agent posing as a friend and a tape recorder in my purse,” says Cheryl. With her help, the INS was able to indict Ghaffari, Garbi and seven other Iranians involved in an organized marriage ring. Ghaffari, who still lives in Houston, is appealing his conviction. “I had to live in fear for over two years,” says White, whose divorce was final last year. “It was insane. It wasn’t worth it.”
—Mary H.J. Farrell, Anne Maier in Houston, Luchina Fisher in Charlotte, Vickie Bane in Denver and Carlton Stowers in Waco