HE WAS FROM IRAN, she from Virginia. Their eyes met across a crowded room, and he offered her $500 to marry him. Never mind the eyes and the crowded room, she figured. Five hundred dollars was another matter.
As it turned out, it was far from enough to pay for what she got. It all seemed so simple in the beginning, a profitable diversion, a jest. In the end it involved much more than that: blackmail, jail and deportation.
The fact is, what seemed like a game to the blushing bride is a deadly serious problem to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Estimates currently put eight million illegal aliens in the United States, "a human tidal wave" as the Zero Population Growth organization has called it, costing taxpayers $10 billion to $13 billion a year in lost earnings, taxes, welfare benefits and public services. A recently announced program by the federal government to provide Americans with two million jobs would just about compensate for the lowest estimated number of jobs held by illegal aliens in this country.
As any immigration officer can tell you the quickest and easiest way for Washington's 57,000 illegal aliens to get a legal cut of the American largess is to find themselves a bona fide, grade-A U.S. spouse. Some get lucky, fall in love and marry. The new partner files for a legal residency or "green" card. Others don't fall in love but marry anyway. They turn on the charm, get a spouse (and a green card) and then break a heart. For others, it's a simple business transaction, the way it might be in the old country. Buy yourself a bride. A few hundred dollars and that green card is yours. As for the new American spouse, a few hundred dollars is an attractive incentive for what looks like it's going to be easy work. Ya' pays yer money and ya' takes yer choice. Ya' gets yer money and, for many, the nightmare begins.
The manager of the restaurant was a big strapping Afghan with a monumental belly and a house full of relatives, and one day he approached Darcy the waitress to ask if she'd like to make some money.
?A thousand dollars,? the Afghan said. "My nephew wants to stay in the United States, but his tourist visa is going to expire. You're a nice girl. Please do me this favor. Marry my nephew."
At the time, she was calling herself Darcy "Love." Her real name was Colson but Love sounded so much nicer, what with the war winding down in Asia and everyone running around barefoot and happy. A grand new age was around the corner.
Even in grand new ages, however, you need money.
Anyway, the nephew was kind of greasy and ugly, she thought, but that didn't bother her. The Afghans paid her with a big stack of fifties and she drove with her fiance to Marlboro, Virginia, the cash snug in her jeans. "Do you take this man for your lawfully wedded husband?" the justice of the peace said. A line of people was waiting outside, to get married. Hurry up, she figured. Let's get this over with. What a goddam hassle it was driving him all the way over here.
The justice of the peace smiled.
"You may kiss the bride," he said. The Afghan bent over. Egh, she figured. Anyway, it was over. She drove him back to the house, and the uncle took them to dinner. Then she drove him back to his apartment.
He smiled when they arrived. "Why don't you stay over tonight?" he said, winking. "After all, we're married."
She looked at him like he was crazy. "Get away from me," she said, and drove off. Keeping her side of the agreement she filed the visa application for him. When the time came for the interview at the Immigration Service the Afghans were all nervous, but she pooh-poohed their concern. "What are you worried about? I'll tell some lies," she said. She rapped with the examiner a while and. . . presto! The green card came in the mail. Now it was time for Mr. Right to file for divorce.
A month later she called and asked, "Uh. . . what about the divorce?"
And three months after that.
And then a year later.
Two years later she met Ed: blond, blue-eyed Georgetown bartender with whom she fell in love. Ed said, "Let's get married."
Long pause. "I can't."
"What do you mean you can't? You mean you don't want to."
In the end he found out the truth. "YOU DID WHAT?" he bellowed. His voice seemed to her to be about the loudest thing she'd ever heard in her life. "I've lost all respect for you! How could you marry someone like that?"
She backed against the wall, screaming "You never made a mistake? What can I do about it?"
Today, at 32, she doesn't call herself "Love" anymore. She answers phones somewhere in Southeast Washington in the office of the plumbing company where she works. You can tell she used to be very pretty.
"Would you have married Ed?" she is asked.
Where does your wife live? Somewhere on Newton Street.
Who does she live with?
I don't know.
Has your marriage been consummated?
Why did you marry her?
I liked her a lot.
Did she ask you to marry her?
Yes, she did.
She wanted a permanent visa?
How much money did she pay you?
Nothing, huh? The examiner shrugs and squares his shoulders. If that's the way you want to play, that's the way we'll play. The scene is the Immigration and Naturalization Service offices, Washington, D.C. Eight department examiners monthly receive about 400 applications from United States citizens in Virginia and the District trying to obtain residency status for their new spouses. About half of these are processed without incident. The other half look suspicious enough to warrant further investigation, says Steve Stephanitis, supervisory criminal investigator for the service.
As a first step, the examiners call in the couple (if the couple can be found; a lot of applications end here) for preliminary questioning. One by one they're brought into the little office while the examiner scrutinizes the application and asks a few questions. What address do they live at? When did they meet each other? Do they have any pets? What kind of pets? If the husband says that the pet is a dog, and the wife says a moose, the examiner will forward the case to the investigation division.
An applicant named Joanne remembers the examination with a sick feeling. She had just married a Spaniard for $500 when the call came from the INS.
"We came into the office and the examiner read us the law," she says. "We were liable to five years in prison or a $10,000 fine for marriage fraud. I was surprised at the gravity with which he read the penalties. Then he sat back like he knew I was lying, and my husband was led out. I started to get nauseous. The examiner read the application, nodding to himself as though none of it were true, then put it down, pointed at me and said, 'Okay, now let me tell you the way it is,' and started going over the law again. Then he asked questions.
"As I left they brought in my husband. Suddenly I was ashamed and I wanted to tell the truth. All of a sudden jail seemed like a real possibility. On the day of the marriage I'd been lighthearted. It had all been theater. Now there were no flowers, no colors. It was all green and gray plastic partitions. People who were handcuffed were being led past me. I saw myself locked up, disgraced. When my husband and I got outside in the car, I told him I was going to back out. He got angry and started yelling in bad English. Something very bad was going to happen to me, he kept saying. He said he was going to hurt me. He expected me to do anything he wanted me to do."
Eventually Joanne called the examiner and told him the truth. The examiner signed a paper exempting her from prosecution. Then she was fingerprinted and she gave a statement. Today she says, "My punishment is being on the files."
Sometimes, although the testimony of the applicants is flawless, the application itself looks bizarre. Or the applicants. A 24-year-old Greek George Hamilton will walk in with a fifty-year-old, 200-pound American bride. "I love her," he swears. One time the examiner was looking over an application and he saw the bride's age was ninety! The groom was twenty, Iranian, a real Mastroianni. He figured 1880 was a good year for brides. "I swear the marriage was consummated!" he cried as they dragged him to the airport. The bride was pronounced senile and sent to a nursing home.
Payment is not always made in money. "I got a Pontiac and a rug," one American told the INS after marrying a Cambodian male four years her junior. Students marry in return for tuition payments. Others like the idea of having someone around to pay the rent, says Stephanitis.
The handcuffs came off when they got him in the penitentiary . . . the goddam penitentiary!
For Mark, it had all seemed, in the beginning . . . not exactly honest, but certainly not criminal. Didn't anyone have a right to marry whomever they wanted? Who would have thought you could wind up in the penitentiary for arranging some marriages?
"I was working in Arlington, unloading apples," says Mark today. "One day my friend Neil called me. He was 17, and he liked to hang out in Georgetown. He'd met this Iranian there named Tony, who had just married an American."
Tony, it seemed, had an idea for a kind of rent-a-bride business. He had already located fifteen customers: Iranian students who felt like staying in the United States. All he needed now was about fifteen brides. Did Neil know anyone who would marry for money?
Neil, as it turned out, knew a few, but Mark knew lots. Each bride would receive $250 on the day of the wedding. Tony said. Mark and Neil would be paid a $100 finder's fee. Meanwhile, good old Tony would be paid $650 for his services.
"Neil and I went to Winchester, Virginia, where I grew up, and I talked to some friends of mine, some girls. I explained the situation and assured them there was nothing illegal in marrying the Iranians. I asked them if maybe they didn't need some money for Christmas or something."
According to INS officials, at least ten did want money for Christmas or something. "So on the first morning, Neil and I and the first girl went to Tony's apartment. It was two blocks away from the Arlington County Courthouse. The Iranian was there with a gift for the girl. That may sound kind of stupid today but it was nice, a nice thing to do. He acted like she was doing him a real favor. While Neil and I waited in the apartment and watched TV, the other three went out. They applied for the license at the courthouse, then went next door to the health clinic for the blood tests, and the justice of the peace was next door. In a way I felt the county was subsidizing what we were doing. Anyway, it took a couple of hours."
Over the next few weeks more marriages were arranged by Tony, Mark and Neil, and then Mark says they tapered off. The Iranians and their wives had little to do with each other, except one couple that fell in love.
At the INS, however, things were starting to become interesting. All of a sudden fifteen applications for residency visas came in from girls from winchester who had married Iranians. What was it, Marry-an-Iranian month in Virginia? Suspicious, the investigators descended on the little town.
"It had been months since the marriages had taken place when I started getting calls from girls," said Mark. "They said Immigration officials had been to see them. I told them to tell the officials that I had told them there was nothing wrong with the marriages. I didn't want them to get in trouble. They were my friends. Then I went to Michigan."
Eventually, Mark had a change of heart, came back and confessed. Tony was deported. Neil's part was never discovered by the INS, and Mark was sentenced to eighteen months in allenwood Federal Penitentiary in Pennsylvania. Six months later, Mark was paroled.
Today Mark is 27, married and living a few blocks from Tony's old apartment. He never sees Neil or the girls who told the INS about him, his old friends. "I realize now," he says, "that it was wrong. Morally wrong. Now that I'm married myself I guess I look at the whole thing differently. People shouldn't be allowed to marry for just any reason."
No quantity of atomic bombs could stem the tide of billions. . . who will someday leave the poor southern part of the world to erupt into the relatively accessible spaces of the rich northern hemisphere looking for survival. . . --
Why should't they come! Why shouldn't they lie! "This is the land of the big PX. This is the big prize," says Stephanitis, throwing open his arms as if to embrace the whole country . . . the cars. . . the money. . . the clothes. . . Look at the contrast! Take an Ethiopian we'll call Ras, a student on scholarship from Addis Ababa, a city with two million people and about one paved street for each million. A place where the market abounds with lepers, where the good restaurants have glazed windows so you don't have to look at what's outside. Ras manages to get to Washington, turns on a TV and. . . what does he see? "My clothes smell fresh," coos some kid on the tube. "My socks feel clean." Mesmerizzed, Ras thinks, Is this for real? I'm never going back.
So the marriage rings form to cater to people like Ras.
Liz Barr was a Washingtonian with contracts in various African embassies. "She would get students to her apartment for purposes of prostitution and there explain to them that she could get the green card for them, for a fee," says Joseph Mongiello, district director of the Immigration and naturalization Service. "She would gave a statement to our officers that she participated personally in twenty-five marriages without obtaining a divorce." At $500 a wedding.
When Barr herself didn't do the marrying, she got a friend to serve as bride, Mongiello says. In those cases the alien paid $350 to Barr, $150 to the bride.
Barr was finally caught by the police in a classic case of bad luck. One day she walked into the office of the clerk of the Charleston, West Virginia, court and requested a birth certificate which, as usual, had been chosen at random and would be used in a fraudulent marriage. In this case however, Barr asked for the birth certificate of the clerk's daughter. The clerk took down Barr's license and called the police.
End of marriage ring, but not of Liz Barr. On October 29, 1975, she was convicted of running the marriage ring. While waiting for the sentencing she visited Stephannitis in his office.
She was smiling, she says in a good mood," says Stephanitis today, incredulous at the memory. "She said, "They're not gonna put me in jail. i'm a Democratic precinct captain, and I help at they boys' club. Can you believe it? That's what she said."
"Did they put her in jail?"
During the 1975 fiscal year, 679,252 persons were arrested in the United States and deported as illegal aliens. In January, a cabinet level presidential committee reported that illegal aliens were entering the country at almost double teh rate of those entering legally. In fact, some people are proposing that all immigration be stopped until the illegal alien problem can be dealt with. At stake, they felt, are American jobs. For instance, Joseph Mongiello said that of the 2393 illegal aliens located in Washington and Virginia between January and October 1976, fifty-eight per cent were employed. Others filled welfare rolls.
Of approximately 4000 applications for spouse resident visas received annually by the INS in the Washington-Virginia area, Mongiello says, fifty are proven conclusively to be marriages where money changed hands. "It's very difficult to prove if no one admits it," he says. "Generally the application is simply withdrawn." He also says that in about 300 other cases, allegations are made that the marriage was for profit. In addition, in 1000 other cases, allegations are made by one of the parties that the wedding was for convenience, for a visa. That's why the INS tries to keep tabs on married alien. If a marriage is dissolved within two years of the wedding date, the case is reopened, says stephanitis.
In other instances, the marriage lasts even though it was fraudulent to start with. "You got what you wanted, a resident visa," the American spouse says sometimes, according to Stephanitis. "Now I want what I want, for you to keep paying the bills. Otherwise I'll tell the INS the marriage was fraud."
So they travel through the years, bound by the thickening bond of marriage and fear. Or maybe the alien runs off and the wedding only becomes an ugly memory. Do you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband, the justice of the peace asks, in sickness and in health? I think I'll buy that new Camaro, the bride thinks, and says, "Yes."