International marriages blessed with love, burdened with paperwork

Melissa Fullmer
BYU students Daniela and Blake Allen dance at their wedding in Texas, when Daniela was a citizen of Mexico. Such international marriages can involve extra hassle in the form of immigration paperwork. (Melissa Fullmer)

It’s only fitting that BYU students end up finding a spouse from a place far beyond Provo with a motto like “The world is our campus.” But students from different countries who fall in love have more to plan than invitations and wedding cakes.

Deciding how the foreign spouse will legally remain in the United States is a top priority for the wedding planning agenda.

Grady and Hisami Bowman would have married sooner if it weren’t for the advice they heard at a free immigration law seminar. They met at BYU Idaho in December 2011 and wed in April 2013. “A lawyer came and scared us into getting married a lot later,” Grady Bowman said.

More than 1,800 foreign students attend BYU, and 70 percent of the student body is fluent in a second language. No official numbers exist on international marriages at BYU, but statistically speaking, students may fall in love with someone from outside the United States.

Hisami Bowman started working on her application for Adjustment of Status with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services a month after she married. This application is better known as a green card application. She did the paperwork all by herself. “Looking back, it would have been better to do it together,” Grady Bowman said.

She made some mistakes on her application, which held up the process and ultimately received her green card in August 2013. Some couples choose to work with an immigration attorney as they apply for permanent residence.

The cost of a lawyer varies and depends on the extent of the help needed. It costs several hundred dollars to have a lawyer simply review an application and upwards of $1,500 to hire a lawyer for the entire process.

These figures pose a burden for many young couples. The form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative, has a fee of $420. The I-485 Adjustment of Status Application costs $1,070. Applicants should always check the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website to verify all necessary forms and fees.

Jake Storm, a senior from California, hassled his way through the process when he got married and wishes the process could be completed online. “It would be a lot quicker and a lot cheaper,” he said.

Storm was married in October 2013 to his wife, Danielle Storm, who is from Brazil. Danielle Storm had a student visa, so the couple didn’t feel a rush to send their paperwork off and only submitted it in August 2014. They are currently waiting to receive a date for their interview. “I know some couples that put their papers in at the beginning of summer, and they are hearing back now,” Jake Storm said. “They (USCIS) are really busy around the holidays, so I’m hoping we hear back soon after.”

The interview is the culminating moment of the process. After submitting all paperwork, completing a physical by a USCIS-sanctioned doctor and submitting fingerprints, couples meet with an immigration official who will approve the green card or make a request for more evidence.

For some, preparing for the interview is stressful, but for Hisami Bowman everything was normal and relaxed. “She didn’t ask any of the invasive questions you hear about,” her husband said.

Kim Buhler, a Provo-based immigration attorney, said immigration officers decide what kinds of questions they will ask. She said one’s experience during the interview could be similar to another kind of interview that BYU students are familiar with. “Immigration officers are like LDS bishops,” she said. “Some can be strict and others not so much.”

International Student Services Director Sam Brown works as a support for foreign students at BYU. Some students tell him the process of adjusting status is longer and more expensive than anticipated. “Dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s — you want to make sure you do it precisely,” Brown said.

Buhler said people can complete the forms on their own if they show great attention to detail. However, if the applicant has ever committed a crime, worked while on a student visa or received government assistance, they should see an attorney.

The first time Hisami Bowman sent in her application, it was returned to them because of an error on the Affidavit of Support form.

This part of the application seems to give couples the most trouble. The petitioning sponsor, the American spouse, must sign this document and accept financial responsibility for the immigrant spouse.

For most college students, accepting such a large financial commitment is not possible while they are still in school; so often the couple will file with a joint sponsor. The joint sponsor is usually a parent of the American spouse and, in the case of the Bowman’s, was Grady Bowman’s father.

This step is crucial, as it is a binding agreement between the United States and the sponsors to permanently provide financial support for the immigrant spouse. The government has a particular interest in making sure this step is completed correctly, because the United States doesn’t provide financial support for the immigrant.

Buhler said it is important to remember this contract lasts forever even if the couple divorced in the future. The sponsors would still be on the hook to pay, should their immigrant former spouse ever need government assistance. “Don’t leave the U.S. once you are engaged,” Buhler said.

If immigrants leave the U.S. while on student visas and return on student visas married to Americans, they will have to prove later that they did not enter the U.S. under false pretenses, which is considered fraud. Not following proper immigration procedure and failing to plan ahead has caused heartache for countless couples.

In order to show that one’s marriage is legitimate, it is important to document everything. Bank accounts, rental agreements and insurance should be in both names.

Grady and Hisami Bowman think they could have wed sooner than the year and a half they waited. “It probably would have been fine,” Grady Bowman said.

The Bowmans could possibly have married each other after a few months of dating, and Hisami Bowman may have received her green card. But it could have been the year and a half of dating that helped prove their marriage legitimate to the immigration officer.

Whether students’ romantic lives lead them to marry Americans, Colombians or South Africans, they should be sure to keep two things in mind: marry for love, and fill out all the required paperwork.

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