From Visa Fraud to Human Trafficking: The Use of Fiancé(e) Visas to Secure Conditions for Exploitation

by | Feb 13, 2020


Thanks to the popular TV show 90 Day Fiancé, millions of viewers have followed the high-drama journeys of U.S. citizens bringing their fiancé(e)s from abroad to race down the aisle. As highlighted in the show, obtaining a K-1 visa — commonly known as the “fiancé(e) visa” — is no wedding cake walk. Indeed, the application and vetting process is extensive, with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) working to confirm a true relationship and detect fraud.

Human traffickers, however, sometimes still manage to game the system. Traffickers use the K-1 visa process as a tool to establish the conditions necessary for exploitation within the context of real relationships or fictional ones. The U.S. government should take additional measures to address the vulnerabilities of those entering the United States on K-1 visas by increasing oversight of the visa sponsor and by drawing on protections already in place for visas creating similar vulnerabilities, namely temporary worker visas.

The Nexus Between Fiancé(e) Visas and Human Trafficking

K-1 visas allow a U.S. citizen to petition for status for a foreign national they intend to marry. The visa grants the U.S. citizen’s partner 90 days of status in the country during which they are to wed or depart. In addition to being eligible for a K-1 visa, foreign fiancé(e)s of U.S. citizens may also be eligible to bring their children with them as dependents through K-2 visas. In 2017, the U.S. government granted nearly 41,000 K-1 and K-2 visas.1

While K-1 visas serve a legitimate purpose, traffickers can use them to bring individuals to the United States as documented immigrants for illegal purposes. In 2016, the Department of Homeland Security found “[w]ork and fiancé visas were the predominant means that human traffickers used to bring victims to the United States legally,” compared to exploiting victims who entered irregularly or overstayed their visitor visas.2

Traffickers use the dependence generated by the K-1 visa to exploit individuals seeking immigration status in the United States. A K-1 visa ties the foreign national fiancé(e)’s immigration status to his or her sponsor, a U.S. citizen fiancé(e), and is nontransferable. This sponsor-beneficiary dynamic makes the foreign national fiancé(e)’s immigration status dependant on the U.S. citizen fiancé(e) just as a temporary worker or diplomat employee visa recipient is generally dependant on their employer.

In the K-1 context, this dependence can facilitate exploitation in different ways. Sometimes the foreign national genuinely believes they are coming to the United States to wed someone they love. In other cases, a foreign national agrees to the charade in order to enter the United States, seeking opportunity. In both situations, upon arrival, the sponsor exploits the foreign national’s isolation and vulnerability to force them to provide domestic labor and/or sex.

One example of a labor trafficking case, in which a trafficker abused the K-1 visa process, occurred in 2000 in Pennsylvania. Lynda Dieu Phan, operator of a nail salon in York, Pennsylvania, instructed A.V., a Vietnamese citizen, to pretend she was engaged to Phan’s brother, a U.S. citizen. Phan’s goal was to help A.V. enter the U.S. on a K-1 visa. A.V. did as instructed and subsequently wed Phan’s brother so she could stay in the United States. Meanwhile, Phan’s brother continued to live with his girlfriend and children in another house.

Woman in nail salon representing a human trafficking and immigration victim

Once A.V. was in the United States, Phan forced her to work long hours for years for no pay in her salon and perform domestic work at Phan’s home. Phan withheld A.V.’s immigration documents and instilled fear in her regarding her status. She threatened to send A.V. to jail if she told anyone what was happening to her. Moreover, A.V. was dependent on Phan for housing, and she could not read or write English, or drive, all of which increased her reliance, vulnerability, and isolation.

Phan exploited these conditions to A.V.’s detriment for years until A.V. managed to escape with the assistance of a customer from the salon in 2008.3 Federal prosecutors charged Phan with forced labor and conspiracy to commit forced labor and marriage fraud, among other charges.4 Phan pled guilty in 2009 and was sentenced to 90 days in prison, one year of probation, and 270 days of house arrest.5 The Court also ordered restitution to A.V. and another victim in the amount of $300,000.6

Existing Protections

Some protections are in place to try to prevent fraud and abuse in the K-1 visa system. Currently, sponsors must complete an application providing information about themselves and their financé(e). They must prove their U.S. citizenship and eligibility for marriage, provide evidence of having met their fiancé(e) in person (or if they have not, that they qualify for an exception), and provide proof of intent to marry.8 Generally, applicants demonstrate intent to marry through signed statements by both fiancé(e)s.

USCIS also provides K-1 visa applicants with a pamphlet on legal rights available to immigrant victims of domestic violence and highlights the fact that victims of domestic violence may also be victims of human trafficking “when the exploitation involves compelled or coerced labor, services, or commercial sex acts.”8 Applicants are instructed to read the pamphlet prior to their visa interview and consular officers are supposed to verbally summarize its contents during the interview.9 Further, the pamphlet contains information about the hotlines and websites of the National Human Trafficking Resource Center and the U.S. Department of Justice Human Trafficking and Worker Exploitation Task Force.10


Advocates and nonprofit organizations have proposed various reforms to reduce vulnerabilities of those who enter the United States on K-1 visas. The Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence, for instance, proposed increasing the age requirements of foreign beneficiaries and extending the length of the K-1 visa from 90 days to at least 120 days, among other recommendations aimed at reducing the risk of abuse.11 Less discussed, however, is reforming the steps of the K-1 visa process. A couple of key reforms to the process itself, building on existing protections for visa beneficiaries, could more directly address traffickers’ abuse of the K-1 visa system.

Increasing Oversight to Deter Traffickers

USCIS should increase oversight of the visa sponsor (i.e., the U.S. citizen fiancé(e)). Notably, the U.S. citizen sponsor is not currently subject to interview during the K-1 visa application process. Petitioners are generally required to interview during the beneficiary’s Adjustment of Status application when the foreign national applies for lawful permanent residence in the United States after marriage.12 Requiring the U.S. citizen to interview with an immigration examiner during the K-1 visa application process, however, would occur months earlier, potentially before they become more confident or comfortable with the fraud, after successfully bringing their victim to the United States. This could provide extra deterrence to individuals like Phan’s brother from cooperating with Phan’s plan. It might also make her plan more difficult to successfully execute by providing additional vetting of the relationship, and perhaps dissuade Phan herself. While potentially resource intensive, such interviews might also deter other types of immigration abuse or visa fraud. USCIS could also limit interviews to cases selectively based on certain indicators.

Follow-up could further improve oversight. Sponsors currently have no obligation to follow up with USCIS to report whether they wed within 90 days. USCIS should require this additional stage of checking in because it would keep the government better appraised of the situation and provide an additional point of contact with potentially both the U.S. citizen and the foreign national fiancé(e).13

Improving Knowledge to Reduce Vulnerability

In addition to increasing oversight, USCIS and the U.S. Department of State can improve their awareness-raising efforts. The informational pamphlet they provide to K-1 visa applicants about their rights, discussed above, is a good start, but it does not go into any detail regarding what protections are available to trafficking survivors.14 To strengthen its substance, USCIS could incorporate content from the “Know Your Rights” pamphlet provided to those coming into the United States on temporary worker visas. Unlike the K-1 visa pamphlet, the employment-based “Know Your Rights” pamphlet given to temporary worker visa applicants describes what human trafficking is and the programs in place for those that report it.15 It also explains the right to be paid fairly, the right to be free from discrimination and sexual harassment, and the right to a healthy and safe workplace, among others.16 USCIS should provide K-1 visa recipients with information about who they can contact and what rights they have should they find themselves in a comparable situation to those exploited under employment visas. Perhaps individuals like A.V. would be emboldened to act earlier if they knew what protections were available to them as victims of trafficking.


Better protecting individuals like A.V. from traffickers requires recognition of the precarious circumstances some foreign nationals face upon arrival to the United States. Providing additional oversight of visa sponsors and increasing K-1 visa applicants’ and recipients’ knowledge of their rights are two ways USCIS and the U.S. Department of State can seek to identify and address these vulnerabilities.

Want to learn more about our work?

Sign up for our email list

Related News