It's a felony, sure -- but some young illegal immigrants see it as their best path to citizenship.

What's a Little Marriage Fraud Between Amigos? 

It's a felony, sure -- but some young illegal immigrants see it as their best path to citizenship.

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The names of the couples in this story have been changed to protect their identities.

If Juan and Juana were going to stage a fake marriage to help Juan get his green card, the two of them figured, they might as well treat some friends to a great meal.

They invited eight of their closest pals—four guys, four girls, people whom they could trust with a felony—to dinner at Thai Nakorn in Garden Grove. A dress code was enforced: men in suits, or at least long-sleeved shirts, and women in dresses. No slacks, no heels, no curry.

Over plates of nam sod and fried trout, washed down with some beers, Juan and Juana enjoyed an evening out with amigos. She wore an off-white strapless dress; he, a suit bought off the rack at Men’s Wearhouse, his first. Juana’s friend snapped photographs throughout the night—at one point, Juan stood up to propose a toast so the friend could take the shot, but he merely posed for the camera, mouth open, and said nothing. Everyone laughed, as the disposable camera flashed and whirred onto the next frame.

The following day, the group drove to the Old Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana, wearing the same clothes from the faux banquet. They posed for pictures at the western entrance of the historic building, on the steps near the marriage license office. In pairs, just the guys, just the girls, just the couple, everyone together. Juan even pulled off the garter belt from Juana’s thigh for a photo—the first time he ever placed his hands within a foot of her nether regions. Friends developed the photos at CVS Pharmacy, the better to play the part of poor kids in love.

A week later, Juan and Juana sat down for an interview with an officer in the Santa Ana offices of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the government agency that handles requests by migrants to enter this country. They weren’t nervous—years of close, platonic friendship meant they knew each other’s stories, and they had consulted with friends and relatives who had staged fake weddings as well. They were prepared. Not even the penalties for marriage fraud—automatic deportation for the offending immigrant, a ban from ever applying again for legal entry into the United States, up to five years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine—made them sweat. Much.

They showed the officer the pictures from Thai Nakorn, from family gatherings. Holding hands. Kissing.

The agent’s questions were accusatory when they weren’t outright skeptical.

Where were your parents for such an important ceremony? she asked the two. In Mexico.

Wouldn’t they have flown up for the occasion? Yes, but we’re having the actual celebration down there.

What about other family? They know this is just a civil ceremony and will fly down to Mexico for the real celebration.

And when is that? Near Christmas.

But that’s six months away. We know, but that’s when our families go down to visit.

Why not hold it here?

Juan and Juana didn’t look at each other—instead, they literally bit their tongues. The officer silently flipped through the photos. After about an hour of questions and photo-browsing, the officer put the pictures down. “That was a really nice dress you wore, Juana,” she said. “Hope your wedding in Mexico goes well.”

There would be no more investigations, the two thought. The ruse was a success. That night, Juan and Juana invited their respective lovers over to their house for a celebration.

*     *     *

The banquet hall at the Quiet Cannon in Montebello is in bedlam. An 18-piece banda sinaloense, its brass section and bass drum so loud you can hear the music from the parking lot down the hill,booms through “La Víbora de la Mar” (“The Sea Snake”). It’s a jaunty children’s tune played during Mexican weddings that finds grown men and women engaging in a version of “London Bridge Is Falling Down,” except participants race around the dance floor progressively faster and faster, hands interlocked, under the arms of the bride and groom.

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