A federal grand jury in California has indicted 44 persons suspected of conspiring to obtain fraudulent immigrant visas for hundreds of Chinese and Vietnamese nationals based on “sham marriages” to U.S. citizens.
Dean Boyd, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), said yesterday that 13 indictments in the case, unsealed this week, stem from a three-year investigation known as “Operation Newlywed Game,” one of the largest marriage fraud probes undertaken in the United States.
Mr. Boyd said ICE agents discovered that those involved in the scheme went to elaborate lengths to make the sham marriages appear legitimate, even posing for wedding pictures, fabricating love letters and creating fraudulent joint tax returns.
“These arrests should send a clear message that ICE is working aggressively to ensure that this kind of criminal activity does not go unchecked or unpunished,” said Loraine Brown, an ICE special agent-in-charge who heads the Los Angeles field office.
Officials at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS), where marriage petitions are processed, noticed the irregularities and alerted ICE agents, sparking the investigation, Mr. Boyd said. But documents obtained by The Washington Times suggest that such a response was the exception and not the rule.
A top CIS official said in an October e-mail that ICE regularly declined 70 percent of the fraud cases forwarded to the agency, including those of sham marriages. Other documents also said the Houston CIS office stopped investigating individual cases of sham marriages, which terrorists have used to remain legally in the United States.
Federal agents and independent analysts said sham marriages are a common tool used by terrorists to remain in the United States. Janice L. Kephart, staff counsel for the September 11 commission, said in a recent report that of 20 terrorists she had studied, 18 had married U.S. citizens and 10 had arranged sham marriages.
“Marrying an American provides an entry toward a permanent legal status and eventual naturalization,” she said.
In the ICE probe, Mr. Boyd said that at the heart of the conspiracy were the “facilitators,” who charged up to $60,000 to orchestrate sham marriages for foreign nationals with U.S. citizens. He said the facilitators used “recruiters,” who typically received $1,000 for each referral to identify U.S. citizens willing to marry the aliens.
Because the foreign nationals often resided in Vietnam or China, he said, the facilitators would make arrangements for U.S. citizen “petitioners” to go overseas to marry the aliens. After the sham marriage, he said, the facilitators assisted the petitioners and aliens with filing bogus immigration petitions. The petitioners were paid thousands of dollars, plus travel fees.
Mr. Boyd said the facilitators also coached the petitioners and the aliens on what to say during status hearings at CIS. Because many of the facilitators used the same petitioners more than once, some of the U.S. citizens involved in the scheme had multiple “spouses” and submitted numerous fraudulent immigration petitions.
He also said ICE agents searched a house in Westminster, Calif., and found records for MT Travel, a travel agency investigators suspect was used as a front to facilitate the marriage fraud. The agency is now defunct.
Those arrested included Julie Tran, Kathy Tran, Minh Hong Duong, Hoa Hoc Phung, Cuong Thoai Diep, Thuy Linh Thi Tran, Paul Hill, Victor Quoc Truong, Lien Tam Vo, Alex Pham and Tuong Vi Thi Phan. They face charges ranging from conspiracy and fraud to making false statements and inducing aliens to enter the country illegally.