NEW YORK -- Four years ago, a Scottish school teacher paid $3,000 for a bride. It wasn't a dowry. It was a down payment on a green card.
A marriage of convenience "seemed an easy way to stay in the country," says the teacher, 28, whose student visa had expired. An intermediary arranged for him to marry a gay woman from Brooklyn.
In the film "Green Card," Gerard Depardieu plays a Frenchman who weds a Manhattan botanist (Andie MacDowell) for the same reason: to get a green card, which will entitle him to live and work in the United States.
"Thank you. Have a nice life," says Georges (Depardieu), before leaving his bride, Bronte, on the steps of City Hall.
Last year, more than 100,000 American citizens married aliens, reports the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). While the majority are legitimate love matches, some exchanged vows for "the sole purpose of circumventing the current laws of the U.S.," says Duke Austin of the INS.
There are no statistics on how many couples like the teacher and his wife, or Georges and Bronte, exist, says Charles Wheeler of the National Center for Immigrants' Rights. "But studies indicate about 1 percent of the marriages involve fraud," he says.
The INS suspects it may be more like 25 percent.
Foreigners, who pay as much as $5,000 to marry an American, find willing mates through friends, marriage brokers and other intermediaries. But few of these couples actually live together.
The Scottish teacher, for instance, lives in another borough from his wife, whom he rarely sees.
Why go to all the trouble?
"A green card is like gold," explains a Soviet emigre who wed a family friend from Massachusetts. Indeed, a stolen card can fetch up to $4,000 on the black market.
"Marriage fraud does exist," Wheeler concedes, "but it's gotten tougher for people to pull it off."
The reason is the Marriage Fraud Act of 1986. To obtain permanent residence status, the law requires a marriage last for at least two years. (Prior to '86, a couple could marry, get residency and divorce within six months.)
Ninety days before their second anniversary, the alien and spouse must jointly petition the INS to change the alien's conditional status to permanent residency. At that time, they are interviewed by the INS to determine the marriage's validity.
The interview can be rigorous or rote, depending on the interviewer. "All they asked my wife was her address," notes the teacher. Yet an English banker and her husband, legitimately married, were interrogated on everything from their sex life to food preferences.
"If you are a 55-year-old Puerto Rican woman married to a 19-year-old Chinese sailor there are going to be questions," points out Steve Weinberg, of Wildes & Weinberg, a law firm specializing in immigration. "It's the type of union the INS is going to look at very closely."
A wide disparity in education, background and occupation also sets off bells. So do courtships that last no longer than the time it takes to say "I do."
In real life, couples must provide evidence of cohabitation with things like photos, joint bank accounts and credit cards, utility bills or mortgage records.
When the INS closes in on Georges and Bronte, they create an instant marriage. They dig up wedding rings, stage honeymoon photos and swap notes on family histories, toothbrush colors, who sleeps on which side of the bed -- all to pass muster as a legitimate, loving couple for the INS.
"Basically, they [the INS] want to know that the party has a marriage which is entered into with the contemplation of continued existence," explains Weinberg.
The penalty for marriage fraud is arrest and immediate deportation; Americans can be prosecuted for the crime, too, says Weinberg, although it rarely happens.