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When she asked him to formally divorce her so she could move on with her life, he refused. It took $2,000 to convince him otherwise.
They finally divorced last year. Roberta hasn’t spoken with him since.
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For immigrants in Orange County trying to attain their green cards through marriage, interviews take place at the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) field office in Santa Ana’s Civic Center. USCIS’s District 23 covers Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. Approximately 200 immigration officers work the area—home to one of the largest concentrations of immigrants (legal and illegal) in the United States—trying to detect immigration fraud of all kinds.
Chief of staff for District 23 is Martha Flores, who has worked with USCIS since 1982. She seems like a kind woman, and she is quoted often in Southern California newspapers after swearing-in ceremonies for new American citizens. But ask her about illegal immigrants and marriage, and she’s matter-of-fact.
“If they want to adjust their status, they have to have had a legal entry into this country,” says Flores, who works out of USCIS’s district headquarters in Los Angeles. “If they [came on a visa that expired], they can adjust it here. If they entered this country illegally—well, they’re not supposed to be here, and if they fell head over heels in love, they have to go back to their own country, and they have to do the visa process abroad like everyone else.”
Illegal immigrants who get married and want to become legal residents must file two forms with USCIS: Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status, and Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative. After their submittal (and payment of fees of $355 for the former, more than $1,000 for the latter) and subsequent review by immigration officers, couples must go through a follow-up interview. Commonly called a Stokes interview, after the 1975 fraud case Stokes v. INS, couples answer questions posed by an investigator to determine whether this is a legitimate marriage or one of convenience.
All immigration officers are trained in the Byzantine clauses of immigration law, in fraud detection and in how to ask the right questions during the all-important interview with couples. But Flores—who conducted such interviews for nearly a decade—says USCIS has no set guidelines for agents to determine what questions to ask or physical tics to note.
She scoffs at the idea that immigration officers will target anyone who appears jittery during the interview. “Most anyone who comes to a federal office for something so important, they’ll be nervous. When I go to the DMV, I’m nervous. But it depends. It depends on how the interview is going,” Flores says. “It depends on the officer, and then we make a determination at that point whether we’re convinced. If there’s no other problem with the case, then we’ll approve it. But we see so many cases, so it’s hard to pinpoint a specific [warning flag that pertains to all couples].”
If the interviewer suspects fraud, he or she forwards the case to another group of specially trained officers that conducts further investigations, like tracking financial records or visiting homes or workplaces in what Flores calls “site visits.”