Any fan of 90s romcoms may be familiar with the film Green Card, which sees an undocumented French migrant in New York played by Gérard Depardieu marry an American (Andie McDowell) in order for him to have his slice of the American dream, only for them to predictably fall madly in love.
Here in Spain, marriages of convenience have seen an “exponential rise” in recent years according to the Central Unit of Illegal Immigration Networks and Fake Documents (Ucrif), and for those who get caught it’s no laughing matter.
Faking a marriage or civil union isn’t generally classified as a crime in Spain, which means that the bogus couple are unlikely to end up behind bars, but it is still considered a fraudulent act that can carry fines of between €500 and €10,000, according article 53.2B of Spain’s migration law.
Nevertheless, in recent years an increasing number of non-EU citizens are striking deals with Spanish or other EU nationals in Spain as a surefire way of obtaining residency in the country and acquiring practically the same rights as a Spaniard.
Individuals may be willing to accept the offer of a fake union, whether it’s to help a migrant out, for mutual convenience or financial gain.
But faking marriages or civil unions has now been absorbed as another illicit practice by criminal gangs in Spain’s major cities.
In 2020, Europol reported how Spanish National Police arrested 12 suspected members of a sham marriage network which facilitated illegal immigration into the EU by setting up partnerships of convenience.
The following year, a priest in Murcia was handed a 20-month prison sentence for carrying our at least 16 bogus weddings.
In February 2022, another gang was arrested in Catalonia for charging migrants for fake civil union partners.
Migrants usually pay between €3,000 and €7,000 for these illegal wedding agencies to find them a partner and to organise the union.
As civil partnerships (parejas de hecho) are generally simpler to carry out than marriages, this has been the preferred modus operandi, and may be one of the reasons why civil unions rose exponentially in Spain from a total of 1.6 million in 2018 to 1.8 million in 2020.
It’s not illegal for a non-resident third-country national to marry an EU resident in Spain and gain residency like this.
And although love is not a prerequisite for such a union to take place, living under the same roof is.
If a Spanish civil servant suspects that the relationship isn’t real, they can contact police to conduct a check at the address provided, or an interview with the alleged couple.
“When there are suspicions, interviews are carried out during which they ask you a lot of details about the other person, and if you don’t live with them, you don’t pass the test ,” migration lawyer Antonio Segura told La Vanguardia.
Despite the risk it can entail, some migrants without the residency documents needed to live and work without problems in Spain see the civil union as the fastest way to resolve their issues and take the risk anyway.
“You have to put yourself in people’s situation,” Segura argues.
“I understand that it’s a mistake to fake a marriage but undocumented migrants can sometimes be here for years without documents, they’re scared of being stopped by police, they’re imprisoned in Spain and can’t fly back to see their families until they’re granted residency through years spent in Spain, they can’t work legally in Spain.”