In the 2009 romantic comedy movie “The Proposal,” actors Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds stage a false engagement to enable Bullock’s character to renew her work visa in the U.S. Like most movies, the plot careens off the rails of reality, but the essential struggle is familiar to many immigrants — marriage is a common door to legal immigration status in the U.S.
Many immigrants come to the U.S. to be with the people they love. In the case of marriage, that often entails a long paperwork trail that can end in a green card. The process can often take years.
However, not all love stories end happily. Whether it’s for infidelity, unforeseen habits or personal reasons, sometimes marriages dissolve. About 10 percent of the general U.S. population is divorced, though among some immigrant populations, the divorce rate is substantially lower. Only 5 percent of the Asian-American population is divorced, while only 8 percent of the Hispanic-American population is divorced, according to the nonprofit Institute for Family Studies.
All the same, divorces happen. And if one member of the partnership is an immigrant, should he or she fear deportation without that legal tie?
Divorce, separation–and others?
Divorce may seem like a simple definition, but it’s not. Different states define types of divorce and separation differently. For starters, “divorce” is defined when a court legally ends a marriage. “Separation” is defined as the state of living apart, though remaining legally married. But different states allow couples different rights under types of divorces.
For example, Maryland defines “absolute divorce” — in which the marriage is formally ended by a court and one partner can no longer inherit from the other — and “limited divorce,” in which the court has not yet ended the marriage because the couple does not yet have grounds for an absolute divorce, still need financial relief or cannot settle their differences out of court, according to the People’s Law Library of Maryland.
If you are still in the process of working through your paperwork to become a permanent resident, your immigration proceedings will likely be affected by divorce proceedings. If you are a conditional resident or if your status depends on your spouse’s status, it’s likely that a separation or divorce will hold up your proceedings for permanent status.
Permanent resident status is only granted based on marriages if the marriage is already older than two years, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigrant Services. Instead, you’re granted conditional status, which lasts for two years, at which time you can apply for permanent status if you’re still married to the same U.S. citizen or permanent resident. To do so, you and your spouse must file form I-751 in the 90 days before your second anniversary as a conditional resident.
A longer wait, maybe
The good news for green card holders is that you’re in the clear for divorce — you won’t lose your green card automatically if you divorce or separate from your spouse. However, the USCIS is always on the lookout for fraudulent marriages, so there are some legal hurdles to getting approved in the first place.
If you’re no longer married to your U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse, you can apply for a waiver for the joint filing requirement and apply for permanent resident status any time after you obtain your conditional resident status and before you’re removed from the country. You will have to prove that removal from the U.S. will cause you extreme hardship, according to the USCIS.
Of course, immigrants may feel trapped in abusive relationships because of their immigration status. The government is not insensitive to this, and the USCIS allows people who have been battered or abused by their U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse or parent to apply for permanent resident status after separating.
However, divorce as an immigrant does come with some consequences, even if you have a permanent resident status. Divorcing will likely delay your ability to apply for early naturalization, meaning you have to wait at least the full five years instead of getting in after three, according to the USCIS.
Permanent resident status is a major step for many immigrants. Depending on your situation, it may seem impossible to obtain one, but a good lawyer can help you work through the situation you’re in.