In their studio apartment in Queens, after nearly 17 years of marriage, Shari Feldman, 51, and Inderjit Singh, 45, seem like a pair of old shoes — a little the worse for wear but comfortable with each other’s creases.
Yet three petitions and five marriage interviews have failed to convince federal immigration authorities that the couple’s union is not a fraud to get a green card for Mr. Singh, a car service driver from India.
Last year, after they reapplied with a new immigration lawyer, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services refused to interview them again, claiming the conflicting answers they gave four years ago to questions like what Mr. Singh wore at their 1993 wedding and whether he had taken Ms. Feldman out to eat on her last birthday was the reason.
Even though this couple may be an extreme case, they are not alone. As immigration authorities have stepped up efforts to uncover fake marriages among hundreds of thousands of petitions by United States citizens seeking green cards for their foreign spouses, cases of longtime couples cast into limbo have multiplied.
Green card through spouse petitions by 20,507 citizens were denied in the last fiscal year, or 7.2 % of the total; of these, only 506 were for fraud, and the rest were for reasons like discrepancies in the couples’ answers or not showing up for an interview.
One Florida pair spent two years struggling for recognition of their seven-year marriage, and in the end had to prove their love to an immigration court to halt the wife’s deportation back to Peru.
Another case in Oregon, took four years and two federal lawsuits to force the agency to accept the marriage of an American woman and her Algerian husband, despite the birth of two children; it emerged in legal discovery that government investigators had collected hundreds of pages of information on the wife and her associates.
Immigration officials, who claim they cannot discuss individual cases, acknowledge that mistakes are sometimes made. However, they point out that the burden of proof is on the couple, and that the duration of a marriage can cut two ways.
Barbara Felska, a veteran in the Stokes unit, the New York office that quizzes spouses separately, then compares their answers to determine whether their relationship is real, questions on how some couples could be married for 8, 10 years without knowing about the spouse’s medical condition or if the spouse has a high blood pressure.
The predicament of Ms. Feldman and Mr. Singh reflects what legal scholars see as a growing tension in national values between the protection of marriage from government intrusion, and the regulation of marriage through immigration laws.
The couple has appealed, but they worry that Mr. Singh will meanwhile be deported.
Mr. Singh entered the country illegally in 1992 but could be granted a spousal green card — a fast track to citizenship — under the more forgiving immigration laws governing those who wed citizens before May 2001.
The couple says they wish that federal officials would just go up to their fifth-floor apartment to see how they manage on her Supplemental Security Income disability payments and his meager wages.
In other states, the immigration service often uses such home inspections; a practice that many complain violates privacy rights without guaranteeing better decisions. But in New York, so-called unannounced bed checks are considered off limits for the Stokes unit.
Under the settlement, if a couple’s first interview raises suspicions of fraud, immigration agency must give applicants a chance to hire an immigration lawyer before a second interview; it must let them explain discrepancies; and it must record the sessions for possible appeal.
In the Queens couple’s most recent petition, their lawyer asked for extra patience from the Stokes examiner, saying Mr. Singh had memory problems because he had been hit on the head with a gun during robberies of the candy store where he used to work.
However, officials denied the request for a new interview and instead repeated the long list of the couple’s mismatched answers in 2006, starting with accounts of their first meeting, in a local park in the summer of 1993. Which according to Ms. Feldman it was a “music night” and according to Mr. Singh there was no special event — perhaps, she later said, because the music was over by the time they met. She said she had taken his phone number but refused to provide hers; he said they had exchanged numbers.
“But if the government does not separate them, they could have the last laugh. “We look around and everybody’s marriage is falling apart,” said Ms. Feldman, whose mother has been married four times. “We’re so matched we can’t even figure it out.”