- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 7, 2006

Federal authorities yesterday arrested 19 residents and charged three others from the region in connection with a scam that resulted in as many as 1,000 marriages between U.S. citizens and illegal aliens trying to avoid immigration laws.

U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg said the early morning arrests capped a three-year undercover investigation that tracked nine persons who arranged marriages between citizens and 10 illegal aliens from Ghana who sought permanent residency and avoiding deportation. Authorities did not charge all of those involved because some acted as informants in the case, affidavit papers show.

Three of those arrested are U.S. citizens who accepted as much as $500 on the marriage day and $300 each month from their new spouse, in part for filing petitions their legal-residence petitions.

“Many, many illegal aliens are willing to pay cash, and lots of it, to facilitators and to fake spouses … for the chance to become a United States citizens,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “Illegal aliens who marry U.S. citizens have a quicker and easier road to lawful, permanent-resident status.”

The crackdown was named “Operation Arlington Marriage Fraud” and is considered the largest of its kind in the region.

The investigation started with a tip from an unidentified Arlington County Courthouse clerk who noticed a “suspicious” pattern of what appeared to be “hastily arranged marriages” between couples behaved like strangers when they applied for their marriage licenses, officials said.

The potential spouses came from Maryland, Virginia and the District. The majority of the phony marriage licenses were obtained at the Arlington Courthouse, but others were obtained in Alexandria, Fairfax and Manassas, officials said.

“It was a pattern of folks appearing in this office [who] didn’t seem to know each other, or the same arranger kept appearing,” Mr. Rosenberg said. The investigation found “some of the newlyweds literally met on the day of their marriage.”

The investigation also uncovered U.S. citizens recruiting others to meet with Ghanaian-born illegal alien facilitators who then matched them with other Ghanaian illegals, affidavit papers show.

For $2,500 to $6,000, the facilitators would find the illegals a spouse and coach them through the immigration process.

For example, Lillian Jackline, one of the illegal alien facilitators named in the case, helped a “couple” concoct photographs, utility bills, bank accounts and other evidence of their life together, an affidavit shows.

Immigration agents posing as friends and relatives of that couple said Mrs. Jackline also helped the spouses memorize such details as how they met and on which side of the bed they slept to successfully complete Citizenship and Immigration Services’ marriage interviews.

The investigation identified “at least” 500 definite sham marriages, but officials say there may have been as many as 1,000.

“That’s a pretty big number when you’re talking about a relatively small geographical area over a three-year period,” Mr. Rosenberg said.

Authorities plan to execute six more search warrants in Virginia and two in Maryland to get more evidence.

Such fraud is widespread across the country, said William F. Reid, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s assistant director of investigations. The agency leads 10 tasks forces across the country on document-and-benefits fraud.

Virginia might have one of the worst problems because there is no waiting period for marriage licenses, Mr. Rosenberg said. There is a two- to five-day wait in Maryland and the District, he said.

Nationally, document-fraud cases doubled from 2004 and 2005, Mr. Reid said. But officials are not sure whether marriage-fraud cases have increased specifically in the region or whether enforcement has tightened recently.

Authorities do not think those arrested are linked to terrorism.

They are being held on charges of immigration fraud, marriage fraud, conspiracy to commit immigration fraud and conspiracy to commit marriage fraud. The Internal Revenue Service, the State Department and police in Arlington and Fairfax counties also participated in the investigation.

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