• 9 Investigates: Immigrants using marriage to cheat system


    CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Valentine's Day has many thinking about love and romance, but all too often, with love comes broken hearts -- and sometimes broken laws.

    Marriage fraud is the most common shortcut to U.S. citizenship, and Channel 9 reporter Mark Becker spoke with a local woman who learned that the hard way.

    Story highlights:

    • Marriage fraud is the most common shortcut to U.S. citizenship
    • Accounts for almost 40 percent of immigration fraud arrests in N.C./S.C.
    • Some American spouses take money to marry someone who wants citizenship

    Chrissy was a lonely single mother when she and her two children moved to Gastonia.

    “I wanted something real -- something that was going to last,” she said.

    Then she met a man from Colombia, South America at her neighborhood pool, and she thought she had found love.

    “He was so romantic and loving and caring and nurturing. He was the perfect guy,” she told Channel 9.

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    The romance was on -- they married, and she and her children moved in with her new husband and his two children.

    It felt right to her.

    “When we were together, everything was great. I felt complete. I felt safe. I felt wanted,” she said.

    It felt so right that she didn’t think twice when she learned that her husband’s sister would be living with them, in a bedroom two doors down the hall from hers. Chrissy even did what she could to help her new family work on getting their U.S. citizenship.

    “They had visas and stuff. I remember them traveling to Atlanta every few months to have to renew something,” she said. ”But I never thought anything was wrong. It always seemed like they have an attorney. The attorney's got to know what he's doing. It all seemed legit.”

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    But it all began to unravel when Chrissy’s stepdaughter revealed that the woman living with them wasn’t her husband’s sister, but his ex-wife. Suddenly, she saw their relationship in a new light -- her husband had married her to get U.S. citizenship.

    “That's my belief now. Absolutely, 100 percent,” she said.

    “When we started talking, I recognized the pattern within seconds,” said George Miller, a friend of Chrissy’s, and also an attorney who specializes in immigration law.

    Miller said most of the international marriages he sees are legitimate, but not all.

    “It is easily a gateway or pathway to potential citizenship,” said Joe Gallion, who oversees the investigations unit at Charlotte’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement office.

    Gallion told Channel 9 that marriage fraud accounts for almost 40 percent of the immigration fraud arrests the agency has made in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia since 2012.

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    In some of those cases, he said the American spouse is complicit in the fraud, agreeing to take money to marry someone who wants to get citizenship. In others -- as in Chrissy’s case -- they have no idea what is going on until it all comes apart.

    Either way, he said, marriage fraud hurts everyone.

    “It really affects everybody. It affects all of Americans. It affects the system itself,” said Gallion.

    Chrissy's ex-husband has moved on as well.

    Channel 9 went to Gastonia to look for Chrissy’s now ex-husband, but were told he's moved and is living  in Florida -- and may well be a U.S. citizen by now.

    Read our past 9 Investigates stories:

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