Recently a Cambodian woman in the U. S. was sentenced to 33 months in prison for arranging sham marriages between U. S. citizens and Cambodian nationals so the latter could easily immigrate into the U. S.
This is a well-known practice, so much so that I am really surprised that the USCIS, as it’s now called, did not catch on sooner. This is not only confined to Khmer people, but to Vietnamese, Chinese, and other nations with a high percentage of people in abject poverty. While the Chinese and other nationals will go just about anywhere that can offer them a chance at earning more money than at home, the Khmer and the Vietnamese clearly prefer the U. S. over any other country.
I can’t imagine that there is anybody out there who doesn’t know how this works. But for the uninitiated, here is the lowdown on it.
A Cambodian in the U. S., whether a naturalized citizen, green card holder or just there on a visa, looks for an American who is willing to marry a Cambodian national for the express purpose of immigrating into the U. S. Needless to say that the Americans available for this kind of deal are usually not too well-off themselves. Mostly people find one through Cambodian businesses and their clientele, by word-of-mouth, or any other confidential means. But from what I know, most of these transactions are for family members, even extended ones. In that sense, the case of the Khmer woman who seemed to make a business out of it was an exception.
Of course, the American doesn’t do this for free. Since most of the time the prospective Khmer bride/groom doesn’t get tourist a visa to the U. S. it becomes necessary for the American to travel to Cambodia where they meet. Sometimes, to make it more credible to the very suspicious embassy consuls, they travel back and forth several times. Then they get married in Cambodia, get the civil marriage license from the Sangkat, get a family book, and all the other documents necessary to apply for an immigrant visa to the U. S.
As spouses, Khmer partners have the first priority in family-based immigration, and there is no limitation on the numbers of visas available. Once everything is processed, and the Khmer partner survived the embassy grilling, they are good to go. The whole thing can take anywhere from 3 months to 1 year, depending on whether all documents were submitted on time.
The U. S. removed one big obstacle from this procedure when they opened the embassy in Phnom Penh to hold those immigration interviews. Formerly interviewees needed to travel to Bangkok for this - another substantial expense.
In the U. S. the newly-weds are supposed to live together, share a joint bank account, etc.; in general, actually live like husband and wife. The ones I know don’t, although I am sure there are some that actually go through with this. After 2 years (it used to be 3), there is another interview with the USCIS to verify that the marriage was real and not just a sham. Of course, if the partners play by the rules, are convincing in their interviews, and have their paperwork in order, they will actually be issued a green card that is good for 10 years (although that may differ in some cases). Both can then go on their own way and eventually file for divorce. If it’s amicable and there is no distribution of property involved, this will be comparatively inexpensive. Additionally, the Khmer individual is eligible for U. S. citizenship after 5 years after they take civics lessons and a mandatory test.
The costs altogether are considerable, though – in my view outright prohibitive. As you all can imagine, the American partner will not bear any of the expenses or costs that need to be ponied up. The fee for the American him-/herself can range from $2,000 to $10,000. In some cases, I heard even $20,000 changed hands. Since most Khmer don’t know the procedures and don’t speak enough English they need to use an immigration attorney to handle all the paperwork.With travel expenses, sometimes two or three times, the fees in Cambodia, which are also no small item, as everything needs to be done expeditiously, and all the other miscellaneous expenses, the whole shebang can add up to anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000, sometimes even more.
As a neutral person, I have often wondered why people go to such extremes to immigrate to the U. S. In my view, if you are poor in Cambodia you will also be poor in the U. S. And most of the time, the would-be immigrants don’t have the money to pay for all this, so they borrow from a family member in the U. S. and maybe scrape together the jewelry they own and sell it.
Just imagine you spend $30,000 to $50,000 to go to the U. S. to do what? Work as an unskilled laborer for minimum wage of $5.75? But when you ask people in Cambodia would you do that, they will in the majority reply without hesitation with a resounding yes. So is poverty in the U. S. better than poverty in Cambodia? And why not go to France or Germany where the social system is much more refined? There the government will provide you with a minimum income of about $600 a month forever if you can’t find a job. Finding a job is the most difficult part of it all. Most of the people coming here don’t speak English at all. They even might have some sort of education but all they work at is on minor jobs on assembly lines in factories, cleaning jobs, etc.; in other words, menial jobs of the lowest category. And those factory jobs are disappearing by the thousands every month right now.
How will they be able to repay that loan? They will practically be in servitude for their entire lives to the person who loaned it. I know of one such person who employs in his store at less than minimum wage three of his relatives whom he brought over. He found willing Americans, paid for all those expenses, and now these three people are in debt to him forever; and he wants it this way. Because they will have to work for him practically their entire lives, and continue the business after he retires so they can support him then. Not a bad idea as such, but at what price for the relatives?
Some will say, at least they have a job, a roof over their heads, and food to eat. Yes, correct, I agree. But it still has that slave labor ring to it, doesn’t it?
The U. S. is the only industrialized country without mandatory health insurance. (The debate over Obama’s health care reform is currently raging at a feverish level.) The U. S. is the only industrialized country that has employment at will, which means employees can be fired at a moment’s notice for no reason at all. After someone has lost their job, they can get unemployment benefits for 6 months. That’s it. After that, you are left to fend for yourself. No wonder you see so many homeless people. In the U. S. roughly 14% or some 43 million people live below the poverty level, which incidentally coincides with the number of people who can’t afford health insurance. Outside the big cities, there is no public transportation system to speak of. Consequently, everyone needs a car just to get to work. If you work 8 hours a day at minimum wage, you make about $1250 a month, which will leave you with about $935 after taxes if you are single and $1000 if you are married.
With a monthly rent of $600, at least $200/month for the car, health insurance of $250/month, which I consider vital, and $300 for food, how can you survive on that kind of income? You can’t, and that’s why these people get a second job, share the apartment with a roommate, and literally work their butts off to make ends meet. The price is high, and there is practically no way out of it, since these people spend all their time working and have no chance of getting a better education; they simply don’t have the time, let alone have some kind of enjoyment with other things like movies, bowling, travel, etc. Is that the kind of life you want to spend $30,000 to $50,000 on, just to get there?
Of course, once they get married the picture changes slightly. With both working two jobs, they can earn a decent income and with a frugal life-style, they will eventually be able to afford all the things that the American way of life stands for: a car, probably you will need two, a house, and maybe a trip or two. If they have children, and most will, the children just follow in their footsteps. A higher education is expensive in the U. S. – another big drawback in this country – and who can afford it ? (It’s free in all EU countries and Japan.) They will also get the uncertainty of a modern industrialized world. They may lose your job overnight. I know someone who worked for the 3M Company for 15 years and was laid off because they transferred their operation overseas. Also, see below the trailer for a documentary on the closing of GM plant – if anybody gets HBO, it’s definitely worth watching. Yes, I do know people who have come here in the late eighties, found a job mostly as a blue-collar worker, or started their own small business, became part of the American social fabric with their own house, cars, etc. But the majority of them couldn’t climb up the social ladder very far according to the U. S. census. Part of the reason was that they spoke none or insufficient English. Even people with a higher education had to get menial jobs. It still surprises me how little English some of those people speak after so many years in the U. S. - some still don’t speak any at all.
They or their parents had no choice at that time but to leave Cambodia after the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge. Many of those people had worked for the Lon Nol government and would be persecuted. But that was then, and this is now. Is it still worth the price? I believe it is exactly those people that emigrated in the late eighties that infected their relatives with that ‘American virus’- American politicians like to call it the American Dream. They made it and they keep telling their relatives they can too. There are about 200,000 – 250,000 Khmer overseas people living in the U.S., France, Canada, and Australia (plus a small number in other countries). The 150,000 or so living in the U. S. managed to infect a great part of the homeland Khmer population with that ‘virus’. Ironically, it is the U. S. that appears so attractive to them, the very country that brought on the misery in Cambodia in the first place, because of its failed policies in SE Asia. One never knows, but if the U. S. government hadn’t overthrown Sihanouk, perhaps the Khmer Rouge would not have won the civil war later. And which country bombarded Cambodia illegally, killing thousands and thousands of people? But that’s another story. Sometimes, when I think about this, I am really baffled. And just as ironically, the same applies to the South Vietnamese. They are afflicted with that same ‘virus’. But here you have over one million U. S.-Vietnamese spreading it. Yes, the present younger generation that was born in the U. S. is better off, or are they? Again according to the U. S. census, roughly 25% get a college degree, about the same as among white Americans. But as we all know this is no guarantee for a well-paying job these days. Yes, there are success stories, but they are the exception rather than the rule.
The situation and attitude is slowly changing in Cambodia, I think. With the world economy in the doldrums, there is little incentive to emigrate; they would simply jump from being jobless in Cambodia to being jobless somewhere else. The U. S. has also become more restrictive in their application of immigration laws. Before it seemed more generous, possibly because of a collective feeling of guilt. Many have started their own families and don’t want to leave them behind for an uncertain and unknown future. They barely scrape by but they have their families to turn to, to give them support, if not materially than at least mentally. So why venture out? And what about Cambodia? Doesn’t this country need its own people help rebuild the country - even the poor farm laborer? Who would do that if they all emigrated? Where is the love of your country that is so often invoked? Not all is well, a lot needs to be done. This is why Cambodia needs its people to stay, work for a better Cambodia, and thereby make a better life for themselves at home.
To counter some arguments from the start, although I am very critical of some aspects of the U.S., I have been living here on and off since the mid-eighties – first, because of a good business opportunity I was offered, and second, because I hated the weather in Europe. (I still found the time to spend more than four years full-time in Cambodia and countless months since.) There are many good things here, don’t get me wrong, but there is at least an equal number of negatives. For poor people, the U. S. would not be my first choice. It would be France or Germany, and the U. K. to some extent, with their social systems. But how many immigrants can they take in? Additionally, those countries suffer from almost the same economic malaise as the U. S. The U.S. is good for people who are already secure in their financial situation, or for the rich, for people who don’t have to worry where the next meal comes from. There are many disturbing things in the U. S., but they usually don’t affect more affluent people in their daily lives, they simply don’t see them because they are never confronted with them. But for the poor immigrant it’s an entirely different story altogether.
Trailer for the HBO documentary 'The last truck'