Agency faked 400 weddings, complete with prop photos, to get green cards for noncitizens, officials say
Federal authorities on Thursday arrested 11 members of a marriage fraud “agency” that they said had arranged hundreds of fake weddings, complete with prop decorations and staged photos, for the purpose of obtaining green cards for noncitizens.
The group is accused of paying more than 400 American citizens to take part in weddings with foreign nationals hoping to become permanent residents of the United States.
For a fee as high as $30,000, the agency would recruit a citizen to participate in the marriage, put on a fake ceremony at a chapel or park, and submit documents to adjust the new spouse’s immigration status, U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins’ office said.
The man suspected of ringleading the operation — Marcialito Biol Benitez, a 48-year-old Philippine national living in Los Angeles — was arrested Thursday along with seven others employed by his agency.
They appeared in a California federal court Thursday and will appear in Boston federal court at a later date, Rollins said. One of the group’s clients lived in Massachusetts, she said.
“Marriage fraud is a serious crime that threatens the integrity of our nation’s lawful immigration system,” Rollins said. “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.”
Operating out of an office in Los Angeles, prosecutors said the group submitted false marriage paperwork and immigration documents, including faked tax returns, in order to gain their clients permanent residency in the U.S.
After pairing a client with an American citizen, Benitez and his staff are suspected of pulling off fake wedding ceremonies presided over by hired online officiants. Officials believe they set up prop wedding decorations and conducted photoshoots to build evidence of the marriage.
The agency is accused of faking 400 marriages over the last six years, federal authorities said.
Benitez’s operation is also suspected of making regular payments to the American citizens who participated in the marriages to ensure their continued cooperation until the green cards were finalized.
But for those participants who became uncooperative with the marriage agency, investigators said Benitez and his subordinates would claim their client had been abused by their American spouse. They would then file restraining orders and apply for green cards under a provision of the Violence Against Women Act, officials said. The VAWA contains a provision that allows noncitizen victims of domestic abuse to apply for green cards without their spouse’s involvement.