Commandment #3 of Applying for Naturalization: Thou Shall Not Have More Than One Spouse at a Time

On our last post we discussed the definition of good moral character and how it is one of several requirements an applicant must meet before becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen. As noted earlier, what constitutes good moral character is not clearly defined by statute, although it has been interpreted by case law to mean behavior that meets the moral standard of the average citizen in the applicant’s community.
There are various factors that will affect a determination of good moral character. Section 101(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) has a list of factors that would prevent a person from showing good moral character. One factor that can affect a good moral character determination includes adultery and polygamy.
I know it has been said that King Solomon had 700 wives, but let’s face it, you and I are no King Solomon. This commandment of “one-spouse-at-a-time” should be self explanatory, but in my years practicing immigration law, I have encountered several cases where the applicant had been married to more than one person at a time, and didn’t even realize it. On a couple of other cases, the person thought they were married, when in fact they were not.
Some months ago I had a client that applied for naturalization. On the application he had indicated that he was married. By the time of the interview the “marriage certificate” was finally produced, and to everyone’s surprise, he was not actually married. As with many other states, Virginia first issues a 60-day marriage license to applicants. During those 60 days, the applicant takes the marriage license and presents it to the celebrant who performs the marriage ceremony. The marriage ceremony by an authorized celebrant is a necessary step for the marriage to be legally binding. The minister or other person officiating the marriage completes and signs the Marriage Register and then forwards it to the clerk of the court who issued the license. This individual never had a marriage ceremony performed by an authorized minister, and therefore never had a legally binding marriage.  They went to the courthouse, obtained a license, and had a small house party to celebrate their “marriage” thinking that nothing else had to be done.
We’ve also encountered some people that were under the genuine, albeit incorrect, impression that because they were married in their home country – and not in the United States – that their marriage back home somehow didn’t count or was not valid, and therefore they were “single”. So they find someone else, and decide to remarry, without obtaining a divorce from their home country. In other cases, the person hires an attorney in their home country to file a divorce, the divorce finally goes through, or so they think, he or she remarries in the United States, just to find out later on that their divorce did not in fact go through as the attorney had told them because of a legal technicality (it wasn’t properly filed, the appropriate signatures or seals were missing, the appropriate fees were not paid to the government office, etc).
While it is true that there is a great deal of ambiguity surrounding the meaning of the term ‘Good Moral Character’ in the context of obtaining U.S. citizenship by naturalization, there are some crimes and bad acts that may prevent one from obtaining U.S. citizenship – polygamy is one of them for sure. The moral of the story is that if you have a spouse – keep your spouse (your children will thank you for it). If you don’t keep your spouse, make sure your divorce is final. If you decide to re-marry, keep your divorce certificate because you might need it for your interview.
Stayed tuned for Commandment #4: Thou Shall Feed Your Children (wherever they are).
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