The definition of a sham marriage is a marriage contracted for reasons other than that of a sincere relationship, family or love. Instead, the marriage is entered into for personal gain or some other sort of strategic purpose (a GREEN CARD, perhaps!).
For a marriage to be valid under U.S. law (not just for immigration purposes), it takes more then a religious ceremony performed by a licensed/ordained cleric or an authorized public servant and a resulting state-issued marriage certificate.
Just because a couple stands before family, friends or witnesses and exchange vows and receive a marriage certificate in the mail 6 weeks later does not, for immigration purposes, make the marriage on its face, valid.
A sincere marriage boils down to INTENT. The couple must intend to live in a sincere marital relationship BEFORE AND AFTER THE CEREMONY. The couple must intend to [outwardly] establish a life together as husband and wife.
In 2017 what does “outwardly establishing a life together as husband and wife look like:
- the couple will have more things in common than not,
- the couple will share a language and religion,
- the couple will live together,
- the couple will vacation together,
- the couple will celebrate major life events together,
- the couple will know each other’s family backgrounds,
- the couple will engage in sexual relations,
- the couple will have children together AND,
- the couple will display trust [in each other] as evidenced by combined finances, combined financial obligations and the joint ownership of property.
Items from the above (non-exhaustive list) list that are tangible, will be proven with documents: the marriage certificate, leases, mortgage agreements, bank accounts, investments documents, passports bearing the same travel stamps, and birth certificates.
Finally, and this is the key for immigration purposes, the government will “test” the sincerity of the marriage by “talking to” or interviewing the husband and the wife about the non-tangible aspects of the marriage. This “testing” takes place in the U.S. at USCIS Field Offices or abroad at U.S. Embassies and Consulates.
Of course, not all couples who are indeed in sincere marriages (or relationships in the case of engaged couples), will be able to check-off on all of the above outward signs of a sincere marriage/relationship. However, if the marriage/relationship is indeed sincere, the inability to check-off on all of the above items will not doom the marriage/relationship in the eyes of the USCIS or a consular officer.
I always tell my clients, especially clients with non-traditional relationships (in the eyes of the government), that “with persistence and perseverance a sincere relationship can meet with success!”
But I also inform prospective clients of the law’s position on sham marriages:
Any individual who knowingly enters into a marriage for the
purpose of evading any provision of the immigration laws shall
be imprisoned for not more than 5 years, or fined not more than
$250,000, or both (I.N.A. sec 275 (c), 8 U.S.C. sec. 1325 (c)).