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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“I wouldn’t call it a movement,” says Juana. “Yeah, I know about six girls who married guys to help them legalize and a couple of guys who did the same for girls. But some really liked them; others got paid. I wished a bunch of Chicanas got together to help out our undocumented hombres adjust their status. But it’s tough to pull off.”

Juana sits at a Starbucks in Dana Point, her raven-black hair pulled tightly into a bun. She rarely thinks about her marriage to Juan—they finalized their divorce two years ago, and she’s now engaged to her longtime boyfriend. But Juana remembers all the details of their time together. “How could you not?” she asks as she nibbles on a cheese Danish. “I’m so proud that we were able to pull through because it was tough.”

The now-34-year-old met Juan when the two attended classes at Orange Coast College early last decade. A native of Michoacán, he entered the United States in 1988 along with his parents, who were fleeing people they owed money to. Juan was 8 at the time, and he entered the country before his parents using his U.S.-born cousin’s birth certificate; his mom and dad followed a month later. Two years passed before the uncle they lived with in Santa Ana sponsored them in an attempt to attain permanent residency for the three.

Their case dragged on for 13 years until 2003, when Juan’s parents were finally awarded permanent residency status. But their son’s claim was denied—the lawyer who represented the family told them that a clause in American immigration law stated that anyone who turned 21 while awaiting notification on a joint petition with their family had to refile on their own and start over.

“Talked about fucked-up,” Juana says. “When I heard that, I told him, ‘Well, if the system is going to fuck you over, then let’s fuck it up.’” She had experience with la migra: Both of her parents came to the United States illegally during the 1970s from Zacatecas, as part of that state’s massive exodus to Southern California. Juana was born in the San Fernando Valley in 1976; her family moved to Anaheim during the 1980s. Her parents eventually qualified for amnesty under the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli bill.

“I know how hard the life is of illegal immigrants,” Juana says. “My parents were mojados [wetbacks], and people from our ranchos have come over illegally ever since my parents did it. But they were lucky—the amnesty helped them. Juan was a dear friend with no chance of amnesty—how could I not help him?”

They married in a civil ceremony in 2005, but they had moved in together a year earlier and opened a joint banking account just in case investigators wondered why they married so suddenly. All along, Juan and Juana dated other people, but she would only go out on double dates, and they always sat next to each other to keep up the illusion in public.

The two figured that after their final interview with the immigration officer, they were safe from further investigation. “We had a party at my house, and we still were thinking of living together just in case anyone had a problem,” she says.

Each shacked up with their lovers for the night in their respective bedrooms and remained in post-coital bliss the next morning when a loud knock on the front door pierced the 7 a.m. calm. It was an immigration officer flashing a badge.

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