Sham Marriages: An Immigration Attorney's Tricks of the Trade

When Randall Caudle was an immigration lawyer in the latter half of the 1990s, "people's faces would glaze over" when he told them what he did. But things in his field, as anybody who has seen a newspaper or watched the news in the last decade would know, have become a bit more heated. Last month he was quoted in a story on immigration reform in the Contra Costa Times; one of the commenters online suggested that immigration attorneys be tried for treason.

The majority of Caudle's last 18 years in immigration law has been spent helping immigrants apply for residency, usually through their work or a U.S.-born spouse. It's put him in a more routine part of a vast and controversial bureaucracy.

But the everyday immigration work that Caudle does is still subject to chicanery. A few times each year a sham marriage comes through his office, someone looking to con their way into citizenship. And in his time, Caudle says he has become a pro at reading the signs. He'll start by making sure both parties are present at an initial meeting. "The ease of their interaction is a first clue," he says.

Caudle will follow up by asking a lot of questions, many of which are the same queries applicants would have to answer in front of an immigration officer. "How did they meet? How did people respond to them getting married? Do their parents know? If some people had been roommates for a long time, I'll ask them if they're just friends," he says. "I can get people to admit if it's not real."

A fraudulent marriage is not good for his business. Caudle won't represent these cases. Immigration officers estimate that one in 10 marriages that come before them is fake, a figure he thinks is high. But regardless, every fake marriage uncovered invites more scrutiny upon the genuine cases and pushes more people into stressful second interviews where husband and wife are separated and forced to answer questions that could be a nightmare for even the most devoted spouse: the color of their partner's toothbrush, and so forth.

Working in San Francisco still requires an open mind. If someone is applying for residency through a spouse, proof of a valid marriage has to be shown. "Quirks do come up that don't fit in with what an immigration officer might consider a normal marriage. You see a lot of that in San Francisco," Caudle says.

It's all given him a rosier view of matrimony than some. At a time when divorce rates have hit 50 percent in the general population, among his former clients it is closer to 10 percent.

"I think that if you're marrying a foreign national you're likely very culturally aware, more adaptable and not too set in your ways."

 
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