U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced yesterday that it is changing its rules on…
One of the questions that is usually at the very top of our client’ list is this: how do I prove to the immigration agencies that I am in a real relationship. That is a fair question, but as I’ll discuss, most people worry too much about the issue (and tend not to worry enough about other issues they haven’t considered). Here, I’ll provide some context for thinking about the issue of proving your relationship, talk about common relationship “types” that we see, and go through the specific documents that immigration lawyers use to prove the legitimacy of their clients’ relationships.
What is a bona fide marriage for immigration (visa) purposes?
In terms of terminology, the term “bona fide” essentially just means “real.” Essentially, is a couple in a real, authentic relationship, or simply trying to evade immigration law. The legal standard for a bona fide marriage is this: does the couple intend to establish life together? If the answer is yes then the relationship is bona fide for immigration purposes. The issue, however, is proving the couple’s intention to start a life together – that’s where the evidence comes in.
As I mentioned, people often worry more than any other issue in their case about proving the legitimacy of their relationship. For context, consider this: my firm has never – not once – had a case denied because the immigration officers thought that our clients’ had a fake relationship. I could pretend that is because we are the world’s greatest lawyers, but that’s not the reason. The reason is because our clients do, in fact, have real relationships and are not trying to game the system. These clients run the gamut from “traditional” Western relationships that involved years of dating, to “traditional” arranged Indian marriages, to couples who met online and have spent almost no time together in person. All are just as legitimate and appropriate when it comes to immigration.
Your parents, family, friends and society may have conceptions about what a marital relationship should look like. That is not the legal standard for immigration cases. Your relationship doesn’t have to look like “normal” for it to count as legitimate for visa purpose. The test comes down to your own – and your partner’s own – understanding of the relationship. You and you alone know if you are in a real relationship.
The immigration service identifies a number of factors with fraudulent marriages. None of these factors automatically means that a case is unwinable, only that it will face increased scrutiny. The factors are:
- Large disparity of age;
- Inability of petitioner and beneficiary to speak each other’s language;
- Vast difference in cultural and ethnic background
- Family and/or friends unaware of the marriage
- Marriage arranged by a third party
- Marriage contracted immediately following the beneficiary’s apprehension or receipt of notification to depart the United States
- Discrepancies in statements on questions for which a husband and wife should have common knowledge
- No cohabitation since marriage
- Beneficiary is a friend of the family
- Petitioner has filed previous petitions in behalf of aliens, especially prior alien spouses.
If any of these are true of your Relationship it is not the end of the world. It does not mean that you should throw up your hands and abandon the immigration process. But it does mean that your application has the potential for getting extra scrutiny, so take extra care in using your packet to communicate to the immigration authority about your relationship.
The timing of your marriage.
If you are getting married to someone else simply for the purpose of helping them secure a visa, you already know that is illegal. But what about the timing of a marriage? What if you genuinely know that you want to get married, but are considering moving up the date of marriage so that you can get the immigration process underway? Immigration law on this issue is clear. There is absolutely nothing wrong about considering the practicalities of immigration when it comes to timing your marriage. If you genuinely do want to marry your significant other, it is fine to get married sooner rather than later so that you can start the immigration process. Or to become engaged sooner than you might otherwise have for purposes of starting the process. In fact, this is quite common for my clients. One thing that we see very frequently is clients who have an informal “courthouse” marriage so that they can get the immigration process started, and later have a formal ceremony with friends and family. In such cases the whole purpose of the informal but legal ceremony is so that they can get the immigration process underway, and this is absolutely fine.
Common types of relationships.
Having seen many couples go through the immigration process, it’s sometimes helpful to think about relationships as fitting into different categories. This isn’t to devalue the unique nature of each relationship, but rather because there are relatively consistent types of documentation we submit for different types of relationships. It may be helpful to think about which box your relationship fits into as a way to prime the pump for considering what proof you want to submit.
1. The newlyweds.
Steve and Ming met eight months ago through a mutual friend. As they dated over the course of six months things became increasingly serious, then Steve moved in with Ming. They decided to get married and wanted to get the immigration process started, so they had only an informal ceremony. They are planning to have a larger one with family later. Both are recently out of school and are only starting their careers. They have decided to keep their finances mostly separate for now.
This is a very common scenario for adjustment of status cases. It is increasingly common to see couples keep their finances separate. It is important to understand that there is no reason a couple should change their approach to marital finances just for the purpose of immigration. There are lots of reasons that couples choose to keep their finances separate, especially when each has a separate career path.
Many newlyweds plan to eventually combine their assets, but just have not yet gotten around to it. Many of our clients plan to open joint checking accounts and joint credit card accounts, but that just has not made it to the top of the list during a busy period of their lives. It is very common for us, in such cases, to provide the financial information at the time of an immigration interview. Because the interview can easily be 6 to 12 months after the packet is filed, that gives a substantial period of time for the couple to get their finances in order and have several months worth of statements.
Standard supporting documents would include the following.
- Lease agreement and proof of payment.
- Affidavits from friends and family members.
- Photographs of the couple and of the wedding ceremony, and even if in formal.
2. Second (or third, etc.) marriage.
Juan and Susan are mid-career professionals, both with prior marriages. Both have grown children from their previous marriages. The two met via online dating four months ago and have decided to tie the knot. Both own their own house or condo they have not yet decided which they will sell. For the moment they are still living separately but spending much time together. Having had bad experiences with their past divorces, they have decided to keep their finances permanently separate.
Given the divorce rate in the United States, it is very very common for us to see immigration cases based on a second or third marriage, and so forth. It is very common for these couples to take a more conservative approach to how they handle their joint finances. With perhaps more maturity than those who are relatively younger, it is also common for us to see these couples get married within the span of just a few months.
Especially where there are children in the picture, as in the scenario above, it is extremely helpful to show the relationship that is developed with the other spouse’s family. In less relationships are unusually strained, for example, it would be expected for the other partners children to have significant contact with the new spouse. It is great to be able to show documentation of holidays spent together and backyard barbecues.
3. The E-Couple.
Susan lives in Ohio, and Kate lives in New Zealand. The couple met online through a role-playing game. Over the course of 12 months they communicated frequently through that and other online games, and through chat software. After a year they decided they would meet in person in the relationship took a dramatic turn. After six more months of online contact they decided they wanted to pursue a long-term relationship. They still have met only once.
The reality these days is that most couples in the United States meet online often that is through online dating platforms, but not always. We have had a significant number of clients who met within the United States or internationally through online gaming communities. There is no reason that a relationship gone this way cannot be perfectly legitimate and suffice for immigration purposes.
In a sense, it is almost easier to document this type of relationship because of all of the online communication. Communications within gaming applications often are not archived, but most chat platforms will be. It is relatively easy to produce screenshots of these chat histories to demonstrate how the relationship developed over time.
4. The globe-trotter.
Juliana is upper management at a multinational corporation. While working in Spain Juliana falls in love with a handsome waiter named Ramon. The two decided to get married, and she takes a six-month sabbatical so they can travel around Europe before returning to the United States.
Couples like this often have completely separate financial matters. Because they have been living in the same location, they will have little in the way of correspondences or even electronic messages. In these situations, photographic evidence can be especially helpful and persuasive. Likewise, I like to document travel for a couple like this. We can submit copies of travel itineraries, hotel receipts — proof that the couple was actually traveling together at the same time and in the same place
Evidence to prove the relationship.
Let’s shift gears now and look at the specific types of evidence that we use to prove the authenticity relationships all of these types of evidence could potentially be used for either fiancé or marriage based case, the sum of these, financial intermingling, will apply more often for marriages. I address photographs and affidavits from friend and family separately, because those are such big topics.
Before continuing, please repeat after me: “quality over quantity, quality over quantity.” When it comes to documenting your relationship, the goal is to make it as easy as possible for the immigration officer to understand the legitimacy of your relationship as you see it. The goal is not to kill as many trees as possible by submitting a bankers box worth of paper that will only confuse and annoy everyone who has to deal with it. Go for the good stuff. There is absolutely no rule of thumb about how many pages of supporting documents you should provide. Because the number of pages does not matter. What matters is whether you are giving the immigration officer a window into your relationship. Are you showing her how you met, how the relationship developed, and what you share in common the draws you together? I sometimes hear other immigration lawyers basically brag about how big the particular filing was. That’s basically a ridiculous mentality because no immigration officer is ever going to read 5,000 pages of garbage that you threw at them. But they will look at thoughtful letters from your friends, meaningful photographs of you together, and careful documentation of your living situation and finances. So please. Quality over quantity. Quality over quantity.
Statements for bank accounts and other deposit accounts. It is common – but by no means universal – for married couples to have largely intermingled financial assets. For a couple who uses a joint checking account or savings account, you should absolutely include statements from this account. As a rule of thumb, we rarely submit more than 12 months of account statements. Clients often ask me if they should open a joint account if they do not already have one. My response is always that they should do this only if it makes sense for their own financial planning is a couple. If you do plan to handle marital expenses from a joint account of some sort, it makes sense to do this early in the immigration process. But you do not need to change the way you handle financial matters as a couple, merely for the purpose of papering over your application nor is it very helpful to open an account if you do not actually plan to use it substantially. 12 months of bank statements from an account that shows little activity is not very helpful. As described above, couples handle their financial matters all sorts of different ways. You do not need to change your families approach to financial planning just to get through the immigration process. Many couples such as those in second marriages, keep their finances completely separate, and there is nothing wrong with this at all.
Credit card statements. Similar to deposit accounts, you should document any joint credit card account. This goes both for an account that is truly a joint account, as well as any card to which the other spouse has access (i.e., has a card with his name on it). As with deposit accounts, a rule of thumb is to submit 12 months of account statements. And as with joint deposit accounts. You do not need to open a joint credit card just for immigration purposes. But as with deposit accounts, if this is something you plan to do, it makes sense to do it as early as possible in the immigration process.
Proof of joint residence. If you have been living together, you should provide documentation of this cohabitation. For a couple who has been renting an apartment residence, provide a copy of the rental agreement. It is also helpful to provide proof of rental payments to show that the lease is being maintained. It is very common for my clients to have a rental agreement where only one member of the couple is listed on the agreement. In most situations you can ask the landlord to amend the agreement to show that the other member of the couple is in authorized resident under the lease.. In other situations, we have simply asked the landlord to write a brief one-paragraph letter stating that the couples residing together make sure such a letter is on the landlord’s formal letterhead.
Were a couple owns a home, certainly you should provide a copy of the deed if jointly owned by the couple. In my experience this is rare, generally the home will be owned by only one member of the couple. In such situations it is important to provide other evidence that the other member of the couple is residing, such as identity documents with the home address listed, and other formal correspondences, such as bills, sent to the home address. If the couple has a mortgage under both of their names, provide the past 12 months of account statements. However, this is relatively rare as many mortgage brokers resist adding a foreign national spouse onto a mortgage.
Insurance. You should provide documentation of any insurance policies held jointly, such as health, car, or rental. To document insurance, it is usually adequate to simply provide photocopies of your insurance cards. I normally do not submit multiple months of account statements for insurance, as we simply wish to document that the couple is currently enrolled together. If the couple has just initiated a new policy, it is also common for us to submit a copy of the initial letter from the insurer confirming coverage, because this is often available before a card is issued.
Photo IDs. If the couple is right signing together, provide copies of any photo IDs that list your home address. These include driver’s license, state identity documents, school IDs, workplace IDs, military IDs, etc.
Bills on joint accounts. You should provide copies of monthly statements from utilities (like gas, electric, garbage, etc.) or any other monthly payable account that you hold jointly. These could include cell phones, cable, Internet, gym memberships, Costco membership, or banana of the month club. Such bills serve two purposes. First, if you are cohabitating, they provide further support of that. Second, the immigration service is interested in any sort of joint financial obligation. Even if it is for the banana of the month club.
Wedding announcements. Regardless of whether or not you had a formal wedding, it is helpful to document how you announced the occasion to your friends and family. In a quote traditional quote situation, we would provide a copy of a formal printed invitation (photocopy, not the awkwardly sized original) ideally along with a list of recipients. In a less formal situation, this could even be simply a copy of the Facebook post where you announced your wedding, including the comments he received from friends and family. There are no bonus points in this situation for having a fancy expensive wedding announcement – so please do not go by wine simply to paper over your immigration application – but rather the point is to show how you announced your wedding to your family and friends.
Receipts for significant wedding expenses. If you had a formal wedding ceremony, rather than a “courthouse wedding,” you can provide receipts for significant expenses. This could include things like a receipt for a wedding band, or invoices from a caterer or, venue, or DJ. You do not need to document every dollar you spent, rather the point is to show that you did in fact organize a ceremony.
Wedding pictures. Address photographs generally below, let me make some points about photos of the wedding itself. First of all, we provide photographs of the wedding in virtually every case file.. Regardless of whether you had a traditional Indian wedding with a thousand guests, or a small courthouse ceremony witnesses, you need to show the immigration service. With that being said, this tends to be an area where people go overboard. It’s great that you hired a professional photographer who took 30,000 images of you, all of your guests, and the appetizers that were served. I’m sure the cheese puffs were delicious, but they really don’t help you prove your legal case. A relatively small smattering of images, let’s say a maximum of 50, is almost always sufficient to give the officer a sense of what the wedding would like. In the vast majority of my cases a dozen photographs is sufficient you really just want to give the officer a sense of what the occasion looked like. It also does not matter one bit whether the photographs are from an expensive wedding photographer, or from your uncle Mike had a couple too many drinks and was capturing shaky images on his iPhone. The point is not production value, only to document the day.
Electronic communications. As described above, it is increasingly common for me to work with couples who have done the majority of their communication electronically. Whether living in different parts of the United States or in different sides of the planet, we work with many couples who meet online and communicate primarily through electronic devices before completing the immigration process. There is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with relationships that develop this way. In these situations, it is often the case that the couple does not have other forms of evidence to prove their bona fide relationship. For example, they may not even have many photographs of them together, having met only a couple times in person.
In such situations, it is critical to demonstrate the ways in which the couple has connected. If the couple has been communicating via WhatsApp then you will want to provide samples of messages. Likewise, if you met through a gaming community, messages from particular game applications can be used. Or, if like many of our clients, use Skype frequently, a call history can be used to show the frequency and duration of your communications.
Let’s talk specifically about message history for things like WhatsApp, Facebook, or other messaging platforms. First of all, you do not need to provide a complete transcript of every message that has ever been sent back and forth. Remember that our mantra is quality over quantity. No immigration officer is going to read 10,000 pages of message transcripts. So what I like to do in these situations is provide a sampling of communications over the duration for which the couple has been in contact. So for example, with a relationship that has been continuing for more than a year, we might provide a couple different chat exchanges for each month. What type of conversation should you use? I think the absolute worst ones are grandiose pronouncements of love and undying affection. These almost always look fake and insincere from a distance. The more helpful ones, our slice of life type conversations. The couple asking each other about issues of daily concern (like the hot water heater that exploded)… Mundane things. Obviously, it is absolutely great if there is also talk about the relationship. But it is unhelpful simply to have cut-and-paste Shakespeare poetry and emoticons of hearts and cupids. Like photographs, these transcripts should provide the immigration officer with a window into what the daily life of your relationship looks like.
It is important that you present these transcripts in a way that shows they are authentic. So you do not want to simply cut and paste into a text document, which could be very easily manipulated. Instead, either use a print function if the application supports it, or else use a screenshot tool. Jing (Jing.com) is my absolute favorite screenshot tool, and is totally free. I use it every day.
Last will and testament. This item is often ignored, but can be a very strong piece of evidence. Importantly, a will can be very helpful to a couple without a lengthy history together. A will can show a strong commitment between the spouses. If you don’t yet have a will, it can be worth the time and expense of drafting one before starting the immigration process. Anyway, for most people this is a good piece of legal housekeeping to check off the list.
Photographs, photographs, photographs. As we all know, a picture is worth a thousand words. It’s just about true ration process. Photographs can be the most convincing way take the immigration officer into the day-to-day reality of your legitimate relationship. So do not blow this opportunity! The problem is most often is couples providing too many photographs, rather than focusing on quality over quantity. Photographs should be as diverse as possible in terms of time and place for example, we do not need 12 photographs from Applebee’s that one night he went out and had a great time. One will suffice. Nor do we need six photographs of you on that one beautiful beach with the beautiful sunset. Again, one will suffice. What I want for my clients diversity. Show me pictures with your family. Send me the picture you posted on Facebook when your husband almost burned down your kitchen. Send me the picture where your fiancé(e) fell asleep on the couch and drooled all over the pillow. Understandably, many clients want to emphasize the grand moments of the relationship. But what is actually most helpful, is to use this as an opportunity to bring the immigration officer into the day-to-day life. Anyone can stand in front of the Eiffel Tower take a snapshot, or Photoshop it for that matter. But it is hard to fake the funny, goofy, sad, boring, and just ordinary photographs probably have phone in your pocket.
So how many is enough? As a ballpark, I estimate we normally submit around 50 photographs in a given client’s case. Virtually never submit greater than 100. Fewer than 20 would usually raise a question as to why the couple does not have more.
The easiest way to organize these is digitally. Put them into a folder and when you are ready to finalize your application, use your computer’s built-in functionality to print them for to a page. We customarily print all photographs in color, to make them have maximum impact. But there is no reason to panic if you have access to only black and white. It is by far preferable to print them on standard printer paper, rather than providing glossy photographs of a nonstandard size. Remember, you want to make it as easy as possible for the officer to review your application.
Want to earn bonus points with your photographs? The optional extra is to label each photograph whether by hand after it has been printed out or on your computer. This can be a brief one line description of roughly speaking at what’s going on such as “Dan falling into shark tank in Bali.” I tend to ask clients to do this only when we have relatively few photographs. There is so much required in the immigration process that I hate to create additional work where it is not needed. But if you need one more task, go ahead and label those photographs.
No pornography, please. I wish this didn’t have to be mentioned, but it really does come up. The immigration service does not need nude photos or those taken in intimate circumstances. Enough said.
Support letters from friends and family. As with photographs, this is an important component of virtually every packet that my firm files. A critical thing that the immigration officer will be looking at, is whether a couples circle of friends and family are aware of the relationship and view it as legitimate. Importantly, the test is not whether your parents – or any other family members – approve of the relationship. Rather, we want friends or family, provide a window into the relationship and how they view it.
How many do you need? As with photographs, the emphasis is on quality over quantity. As a rule of thumb, I submit between three and five in most cases. But I can think of plenty of cases where we submitted a dozen or so. By quality, I mean that they should be written by people who have real knowledge of your relationship. If your parents are living, and involved in your life, it will almost always be appropriate for them to write. Likewise, any other relatives with whom you are close should be asked for a letter. For friends, it is important to focus on the ones with whom you are closest and have the most knowledge of you as a couple. To put it simply. Get letters from those with whom you spend the most time.
What should the letter say? The point is for the author to communicate to the immigration officer that you have an authentic relationship. But it is not very helpful to simply say “this relationship is valid.” Lawyers call such a statement conclusory, is basically worthless. Rather, think about it this way. If I was sitting down with the author over coffee and asked about you and your significant other what would that person tell me? What stories will they tell? How would they describe the compatibility of your personalities? Rather than talk in generalities, it is often very helpful for the author to describe a particular situation where they have seen you interact. Ask your parents to talk about when they first met your significant other or about last Christmas. Have your friends talk about when you guys went to Napa Valley for wine tasting. It is wonderful if the author can include a couple photographs that she took of one or both of you.
What is the form for one of these letters? Neither US CIS nor the Department of State requires that these letters be submitted on any particular form. In fact, there are no strict requirements for preparing one of these. In the appendix, I have provided a template that we use of the law firm. Some individuals will submit these documents simply as a letter. Almost all immigration lawyers, myself included, prefer that they comply with the requirements of a formal declaration. I declaration simply means that the author is attesting under penalty of perjury that the contents of the document are true. Essentially, it is a more formal submission. You can also have the individual’s identity certified by a notary public. In most situations this is overkill, and is not standard practice at my law firm. Moreover, the most important thing is to get a good letter from the author, and you can undermine that if you make the process more difficult by requiring that the person go to a Notary Public. So our approach is to use the declaration template that I provide here.
In terms of length, these documents do not need to be long. Most of the best letters that I have seen have been a page or less. There is almost never a reason to go more than two pages in length. If at all possible the document should be typed and not handwritten. The final document should be printed and signed. You may submit either the original signed paper, or else submit a scanned copy. There is no requirement that the paper original be presented with the pack. An original signature is not required.
Declarations by the applicant and petitioner. Unlike many other immigration attorneys I do not normally submit a sworn declaration by the foreign spouse (applicant) or U.S. spouse (petitioner). Why? In both consular visa cases and adjustment of status cases the applicant is going to be interviewed. That interview is going to carry far more persuasive weight than the applicant’s carefully formulated statement. At the interview the officer can the applicant’s testimony in the context of body language and voice intonation. It is a more natural and more communicative way for the applicant to tell her story. By contrast, written statements by the applicant tend to come across as dry and/or cheesy. Sometimes even if a written statement is very heartfelt and genuine it comes across as fake. Unless the applicant is an accomplished writer it can be very hard to do justice to a relationship in a written declaration. How do you explain why you love you spouse? It’s hard, and in my experience it’s also not necessary for a successful application. An additional reason not to submit a declaration is this. Even somewhat trivial discrepancies between the declaration and testimony at the time of an interview can supply the immigration officer with a reason to doubt the individuals veracity. To think that the person is lying. There are plenty of details from my own relationship that I probably don’t remember with great accuracy. Were I to say one thing on a written declaration and another at an interview, this could provide the immigration officer with a reason to think that I am lying. That is an extremely serious situation to be in. Filing a written declaration provides ammunition for open “impeachment” – attacking a person’s credibility.
Note that fiancé(e) visas are a different matter. For those you do need a sworn statement that addresses both: (1) that the couple met in person in the past two years, and describing the circumstances; and (2) the couple’s intention to get married within 90 days of arriving in the U.S.