COVID-19 creates a risk of deportation for Fiance Visa couples

COVID-19 has disrupted life for everyone.

For those in the Fiance Visa process to the US, it has been an especially bizarre time. Even if they want to abide by the rules and follow correct procedures, many are forced into noncompliance against their will.

If you’re not familiar, the US has a fiance visa program in which a foreigner can go to the US and marry their US citizen partner. This is often a 5-10 month-long journey starting with paperwork and ending with a visa interview which grants permission to travel to the US.

Once the foreign partner arrives, the engaged couple has up to 90 days to get legally married. If they don’t, the foreigner must pack up and leave the US, otherwise they’re deemed “out of status” and subject to deportation by US authorities.

On average, over 40,000 of these K visa couples happily tie the knot every year and well within the 90-day limit. This was all well and good until COVID-19 forced everything to shut down, including Marriage Bureaus, in March of 2020.

This completely halted the process for K-1 visa couples because in the US, marriage requires two steps: (1) applying in-person for a marriage license, and (2) having a wedding performed and witnessed by a registered officiant.

With social distancing leading to a widespread shutdown of Marriage Bureaus, a frenzy ensued. Confused fiance visa couples who had just arrived and wanted to get their licenses had no way of actually getting one.

How could they get a license? How could they marry and not risk being deported? Would they be out of compliance? Would they be deported? What were they supposed to do?

In the first few weeks of the shutdown, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) was silent on the matter and offered little more than saying they were looking into it.

Therefore, couples who had their wedding plans foiled desperately looked for alternatives. Many made multiple unsuccessful calls to the City Clerk’s office, lawyers, and even neighboring State’s marriage bureaus in hopes of finding an answer.

Others found creative ways to comply. One such K-1 visa couple picked up the phone and dialed their local City Clerk, who wasn’t able to help but directed them to contact an office in another county. After being forwarded several times, they finally found a Marriage Bureau who was “making exceptions for cases like [theirs]”.

When this couple arrived at the scene, they waited outside in the cold six feet behind the couple in front of them. After an hour of waiting, their turn finally came.  They greeted a worker wearing gloves and a full face mask sitting in a makeshift, plastic-covered hut. The couple submitted their application, signed a few forms, and were handed back a printout of their license. The whole experience felt like buying tickets at the counter in a carnival.

This newly married couple let out a sigh of relief, celebrated quickly, and began preparations to submit their green card application in the nick of time.

Of course, this kind of temporary solution wasn’t available everywhere, nor was it happening on a large enough scale to help the other thousands of K-1 visa holders desperately trying to hold onto their wedding plans and immigration status.

Thankfully, relief did come about a month later. After much deliberation and as a direct response to these troubles, several US states began implementing “virtual marriage licenses”.

For example, an Executive Order signed by Governor Cuomo of New York City on April 18th, 2020 allowed the Marriage bureau to use video conferencing technology for issuing marriage licenses and solemnizing weddings.

Sensing the urgency, New York City unveiled “project cupid” within a month, an online system which allowed couples to upload documents and have a virtual meeting before being granted the license… bypassing Federal restrictions on social distancing.

Several other states quickly followed suit and began offering their own versions of online marriage licenses. The other US States who still remained adopted low-tech solutions such as temporary huts set up outside their buildings.

While these new methods –both virtual and in-person applications– have alleviated much of the Fiance Visa holder’s concern, new problems have emerged.

“Project cupid” is reportedly overbooked with the next available online appointment dates several months away. Secondly, not all US states offer online programs, and of the ones that do, they carry certain restrictions. For example, New York City requires you to be physically present in New York (albeit digitally) before the licenses are granted.

Yet again, fiance visa couples are pressed to find alternatives in order to comply with the 90-day marriage rule. In addition, despite months of being aware of this dilemma, the USCIS still hasn’t addressed the issue directly.

However, this comes at a time when the US is starting to ease COVID-19 restrictions, and it’s more likely that robust methods of marriage will be provided on a widespread scale soon.


About the Author: Image headshot:

Prem Kumar runs Visa Tutor to help fiance visa couples navigate the immigration process to the US. On a monthly basis, tens of thousands of couples trust his advice on his website. Prem is a bonded Immigration Assistance Provider.

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