Immigrants Using Skype to Marry and Become American Citizens

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America is seeing a rise in Skype weddings which allow immigrants to gain legal citizenship by exchanging vows with people thousands of miles away.

Called proxy online marriages, the practice has many fearful that it will increase marriage fraud and increase the number of sex trafficking victims.

Immigration authorities are not providing extra inspection to determine if the video chat marriages are misused.

While not all U.S. states allow proxy marriages, Colorado, Texas, Montana, Alabama, Missouri and California allow them. In all other states, it is illegal unless one partner is in the military.

Countries like India, England and Israel consider proxy marriages legally-binding, so when a foreigner marries an American via Skype in one of the states it is legal in, that foreigner is able to become a U.S. citizen.

Punam Chowdhury was an American citizen when she married her husband who was living in Bangladesh. They conducted the ceremony on Skype last month from a mosque in Jackson Heights, Queens.

Their marriage certificate says the wedding “took place” in Bangladesh, as it is illegal in New York.

If she were a California resident, however, the proxy marriage would have been a legal California marriage.

George Andrews, operations manager of Proxy Marriage Now, says his company helps facilitate weddings for those wishing to attain visa or citizenship.

They perform 500 video chat weddings per year, and 60 percent of those are marriages with no military spouse.

As the practice becomes popularized, many officials are concerned about the legality of it.

A community activist from Queens, A. Uddin, said she stopped helping people with proxy weddings after she realized many foreigners were preying upon lonely Americans, as they only wanted a green card and not a relationship.

People using marriage to apply for citizenship in America are interviewed by Homeland Security or State Department officials to prevent fraud and human trafficking.

But these officials do not ask specific questions about the wedding, like if it occurred via Skype.

A professor at Michigan State University College of Law, Adam Candeub, said these marriages drop one of the key components of a wedding by not having a judge or priest present.

“Part of the reason for having the two people come and appear before a priest or a judge is to make sure it is a freely chosen thing. There are some problems with willy-nilly allowing anyone around the world to marry,” Candeub said.

There have been cases where proxy marriages allowed vulnerable women to enter the U.S. and later find themselves pressured to perform sex work by traffickers.

Deputy director of the Immigration Intervention Project at the Sanctuary for Families, Archi Pyati, said he helped women from West Africa who married by proxy without their consent.

But there are some people who believe the technological wedding is beneficial.

Sean Murtagh, 24, said he was able to marry Australian Natalie Mead, 30, via Skype when volcanic ash in Iceland prevented them from having their London wedding.

It also allowed them to broadcast it to family and friends in London.

Samuel Kim married Helen Oh via Skype. Though they are both already American, they decided to do a webcam marriage when Kim became sick with a lung infection and was too sick to have the wedding. They conducted it from a webcam in his hospital.

While it seems like a new invention, proxy marriages have been around for centuries. Louis XVI married Marie Antoinette through a proxy marriage in Austria while he was gone. There have also been cases of proxy marriages through telephone and telegraph.