Rarely does the actual commission of marriage fraud become headline news in the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) webpage. On July 1, 2015, the USCIS webpage banner reads: “Four individuals born in the Philippines have been indicted for marriage fraud.” (http://www.uscis.gov/news/uscis-efforts-jacksonville-lead-indictment-marriage-fraud)
Jacksonville (Florida) residents Mark Laurence Barlaan, Winnie Rabaya Barlaan, Mary Helen Amaba Barlaan and Peter Laforteza Barlaan were charged with marriage fraud, immigration document fraud, lying to a federal agency and conspiracy to commit the aforementioned crimes.
Mary Baarlan is additionally charged with fraudulently obtaining U.S. citizenship. If found guilty on all counts, each of the respondents would draw a maximum penalty of 15 to 25 years in federal prison, possibly a fine (of up to $250,000) and definitely, removal from the United States. The dreaded word is “deportation.”
Peter, 62 years old, and Mark, 34 years old, are father and son. Peter came to the US first. Mark followed in December 2008 on the basis of a temporary work visa. Mary Helen Amaba, 32 years old, arrived as a tourist in 2007. Mark and Mary were in a romantic relationship while in the Philippines, and this continued when they moved to the U.S. They, however, found themselves without an immediate recourse to obtaining green cards because both were non-immigrants.
Peter Barlaan is a naturalized US citizen. As soon as he obtained his U.S. citizenship in 2009, he married Mary, his son’s girlfriend. Mary eventually obtained her green card and was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 2013. In 2011, Winnie Rabaya, 64 years old, a naturalized US citizen, married Mark.
An investigation revealed that Peter had paid Winnie thousands of dollars to marry his son. Oh, what a tangled web! It was a situation so obviously bizarre except maybe to the Barlaans. You might hear rumors about such desperate goings-on in immigrant communities but this one is an overkill.
An investigation was put into motion by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and USCIS, resulting in the indictments.
The latest news (August 2015) about the case reveals that the four have pled guilty to all the charges and will serve 5-10 years in a federal prison, and they will be deported after serving their sentences. They have yet to be sentenced.
As practicing immigration attorneys born in the Philippines, we take extra care in rectifying the unfair image (perhaps “profiling”) of Filipinos as most likely to commit “marriage fraud” to obtain green cards. Filipinos are not the only ones doing it, as there are other immigrants who are cast in the same light.
But there is no one to blame for such tarnished reputation, except us. It is simply wrong. And is it worth taking such a risk? It is understandable that tall tales about a country where the roads are paved with gold can be enticing even to rational people. Every immigrant has a story, some tragically compelling, some legally routine, romantic or even providential, and in all of these, there is a testimony to the fact that we earn every penny in this country by nothing less than our sweat and blood. A Sri Lankan friend refers to her green card as a “blood card.”
It is integrity that is the foundation of our lives in the United States of America. The Barlaans gambled and lost not only money but also their self worth and dignity.
Would they be able to live with that embarrassment? In the prevailing social media culture in which there is hardly any secret, would you lie, cheat or steal just to have a chance to obtain U.S. citizenship?
Our legal advice: Don’t even think about it.