Eleven California residents, many of them Philippine nationals, have been charged with running a marriage fraud operation to help migrants dodge immigration laws.
The suspects arranged fake marriages for at least 400 people between October 2016 and March 2022, according to a news release from the Department of Justice.
An indictment accuses Marcialito Biol Benitez of running what he called an “agency” that set up the sham marriages between clients and U.S. citizens.
Clients would pay $20,000 to $30,000 for false marriage and immigration documents in an effort to secure permanent resident status in the U.S.
Benitez and seven of the other suspects were arrested on Thursday and appeared in federal court in California. They will appear in court in Boston at a later date, according to the release.
“Marriage fraud is a serious crime that threatens the integrity of our nation’s lawful immigration system,” said U.S. Attorney Rachael S. Rollins.
“These defendants’ alleged exploitation of this system for profit is an affront to our nation’s tradition of welcoming immigrants and prospective citizens. Their alleged fraudulent behavior makes things harder for the vast majority of immigrants who follow the law and respect our immigration system.”
The suspects worked out of Los Angeles. Some of those charged are alleged to have recruited and paid U.S. citizens to take part in the scheme, while others are accused of recruiting foreign clients and preparing false documents.
The conspirators allegedly held fake wedding ceremonies with officiants hired online. Photos were taken to be used in immigration petitions.
After submitting the false documents to Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency would then coach clients and their fake spouses on CIS interviews and how to keep up the appearance of actually being married.
Clients “married” to people who no longer wanted to go along with the scheme were assisted with applications to remain in the country under the Violence Against Women Act.
Rollins said she was irked by that tactic.
“By allegedly submitting false applications that claimed domestic abuse, these charged defendants did further harm, this time to real victims and survivors of domestic violence,” she said.
The charge of conspiracy to commit marriage fraud carries a sentence of up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000.
“It is the utmost honor and privilege to become an American citizen, and the individuals we arrested today have allegedly made a sham of that process by running a large-scale marriage fraud ‘agency’ that arranged hundreds of fake marriages for foreign nationals, racking up millions of dollars in profits,” FBI official Joseph R. Bonavolonta said.
“We believe their alleged scheme broke immigration laws that are in place to protect public safety and created a disadvantage for those seeking to earn their citizenship lawfully,” he continued.
“This case should serve as a warning to others that the FBI and our law enforcement partners are united in our efforts to disrupt and dismantle criminal enterprises that seek to circumvent our laws by fraudulent means.”