Reentering life on the outside after a felony conviction and incarceration can be a very difficult adjustment. Finding employment and a place to live are hard enough. Rebuilding relationships with family members can take time and substantial patience, especially if your conviction hurt them or caused them hardship. Developing a romantic relationship with someone who may not understand what you’ve been through can be an even bigger challenge.
After being emotionally isolated and unsupported for so long, it’s not surprising that many felons find love and wish to marry not long after their release. Sometimes it’s someone they knew previously, other times it’s someone they met through letters while incarcerated. It could be someone they meet at a new job. Given that there are an estimated forty-seven million immigrants currently in the U.S., it’s not surprising that a felon could fall in love with someone they meet in the U.S. who is visiting from another country.
A relationship between a U.S. citizen and an immigrant is the same as any other relationship, until they become more serious and begin contemplating engagement and marriage. If the immigrant in the relationship plans to stay in the U.S. long-term, there will be some legal and logistical issues for the couple to contemplate when planning their future together.
Your Right To Marriage
There are no laws prohibiting a felon from marrying an immigrant. So long as you follow the protocol of your local jurisdiction, get a marriage license and have the properly ordained authority conduct the ceremony, your marriage will be legal.
However, as this article illustrates, being legally married to a U.S. citizen will not prevent an immigrant from being deported. To ensure your fiancé can stay in the U.S. they will need to become a permanent resident.
Becoming a Permanent Resident
Anyone entering the U.S. who plans to stay for more than three months (90 days) will usually need a visa. Some examples of visa types are student visa, work visa, tourist visa and non-immigrant visa.
If a person in the U.S. on a visa decides they would like to remain in the U.S. and become a permanent resident, they will need to apply for a green card. A green card is the same thing as a permanent resident visa. There are different categories of green cards, some with limits on how many can be awarded each year. On the bright side, once you’re married, your spouse will be applying for an “immediate relative” green card, which is an unlimited category. If your fiancé is foreign born and not currently in the U.S. on a visa, they will need to be in the U.S. on some type of visa while they are waiting for their green card.
A K-1 visa is a non-immigrant visa, also known as a fiancé visa. It allows your foreign-born fiancé to come to the U.S. up to 90 days before the wedding. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website, to qualify for a K-1 visa, you must intend to marry each other within 90 days of your fiancé entering the U.S as a K-1 nonimmigrant. Your marriage must be legitimate, meaning you plan to build a life together and you’re not getting married just for the immigration benefit, i.e. getting a green card.
You may be required to show that you’re planning a wedding, have a date set, etc. to prove your intent.
Also, you both must be legally eligible to marry. For example, both of you must be legally single and of legal age to marry (legal age depends on state in which you will marry).
A K-1 visa will not apply if you’ve already married each other, plan to marry outside the U.S. or if your fiancé is already residing in the U.S. legally.
If all goes according to plan and you marry within the 90-day period, your former fiancé, now spouse, may apply for lawful permanent resident status in the United States a.k.a. a green card.
Sponsoring your fiancé
Your fiancé will need a sponsor. Who better to sponsor them than you? Well, that depends.
“Sponsoring” is the official term for helping an immigrant in applying for a green card via marriage.
When you sponsor someone for citizenship, an extensive background and security check will be performed on both of you. Even if a conviction has been set aside or expunged, the USCIS may be able to see it. Make sure that all information you provide to USCIS is complete and honest.
Even though your criminal record doesn’t prevent you from marrying an immigrant, you can be barred from sponsoring them if you’ve been convicted of certain offenses.
Section 402 of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act bars a U.S. citizen from sponsoring a spouse for a green card if he or she was convicted of specific sex offenses against a minor including: Solicitation of a minor to engage in sexual conduct or practice prostitution, use of a minor in a sexual performance, production, possession, or distribution of child pornography, an offense involving kidnapping or false imprisonment (unless committed by a parent or guardian), video voyeurism or the use of the internet to attempt or facilitate a criminal sexual conduct involving a minor.
If this exception applies to you, be upfront with your spouse, preferably before the wedding, and come up with a plan you can both agree on.
Something else to consider is the criminal history of your fiancé. Depending on the nature and severity of their offenses, they may be barred from entering the U.S. or applying for permanent resident status.
It’s also very important that they obey the law and stay out of trouble while in the U.S. on any visa. Their visa can be revoked, and an immigrant can be deported if they are convicted of certain crimes. A felony conviction is grounds for deportation, regardless of marital status.
Divorce Mid-Green Card
Unfortunately, not all relationships are built to last. If you find your relationship is not working out, you may wonder what will happen to your spouse’s green card application if you divorce.
When you marry, a two-year conditional green card is usually issued. This two-year window is in place to give USCIS time to determine that the marriage is sincere and not a sham perpetrated to get a green card. If you divorce within this two-year period, your marriage will look suspicious to the USCIS and attract scrutiny. Your spouse will have to provide substantial evidence that the marriage was genuine and real. This can be exceptionally difficult to prove, and if USCIS is not convinced, the conditional green card can be revoked, and your spouse will be forced to find another avenue to citizenship or be deported.
If you have been married over two years and your spouse has achieved permanent resident status, a divorce should not affect their green card.
Benefits of Marriage for Felons
Research has shown that family support can be an integral part in ensuring the success of a felon after conviction and incarceration. A supportive spouse can improve your life and help you commit to your new path on the straight and narrow. It’s important to make sure you surround yourself with people who want to see you succeed and are positive influences on you.
Because the people around you can be such a strong influence, it’s important to make sure you truly know the person you are going to marry. A spouse with bad habits or who is a bad influence can be very dangerous to someone who is on probation or parole.
If your spouse uses drugs or drinks excessively, this could lead to bad situations for you. Being caught with drugs in your home could send you right back to prison, even if they aren’t yours. A heated exchange with a drunk partner could lead to a domestic violence incident. Another dangerous situation for a felon.
If your partner is constantly spending money and pressuring you for more, the desire to appease them could drive you to make poor choices that could land you back in court or worse.
It can be tempting to rush into a relationship after so much time has been wasted, but taking the time to get to know the person you are committing to and planning to marry can save you more heartache and wasted time in the future.
A loving, supportive relationship can be a priceless asset in building the rest of your life. Give this decision the consideration it deserves.