- The Washington Times - Friday, October 20, 2006

ATLANTA (AP) — A Gwinnett County man listed as the groom in eight marriages is one of three local suspects in a sham green card marriage ring, a common and expanding crime nationwide, immigration officials and prosecutors say.

The defendants are accused of helping immigrants from Africa obtain their green cards, or permanent U.S. residency, and that does not surprise Gwinnett County Probate Court Chief Clerk Marlene Duwell.

Miss Duwell has witnessed couples who couldn’t converse with each other because of a language barrier, and marriage-license applicants who did not know their future spouse’s last name or place of birth.

Over the past year, authorities have broken up large green card marriage rings from coast to coast that made millions of dollars by providing spouses and fake documents to foreigners.

About one in five of the 3,434 identity and benefit fraud cases Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigated in fiscal 2005 were deemed marriage fraud, said agency spokesman Marc Raimondi. He said arrest figures were not immediately available.

However, authorities said arrests are on the rise, partly because immigration officials over the past three years have created task forces focused on fraud.

“It took much more significance after 9/11,” said Martin Ficke, agent in charge of the New York City office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “With a real green card, you get a lot more access. It’s a major priority for ICE.”

By marrying an American citizen, foreigners can gain the right to stay and work in this country.

Within two years of the wedding, husband and wife are called in to be interviewed separately by an immigration officer who establishes whether the marriage is bona fide and, if so, grants a green card. The interviewer can ask anything: how they met, which side of the bed a spouse sleeps on, the color of his or her toothbrush.

While the process is long and expensive at about $5,000, it is in many cases easier than getting a green card through an employer. Nearly 260,000 spouses of U.S. citizens became permanent residents in 2005, up from fewer than 185,000 in 2003, according to the government.

Two especially large rings were broken up over the summer in Utah’s Salt Lake County and New York City. In New York, a former immigration officer and his sister are accused of making more than $1 million over four years by providing hundreds of fake marriage documents.

In Utah, 24 persons — most of them naturalized U.S. citizens from Vietnam — were charged with paying at least 46 U.S. citizens as much as $10,000 each to travel to Vietnam to marry Vietnamese people. The foreigners were charged $30,000 each.

The organizers took care of the smallest details: They made “couples” change their clothes over and over for a succession of pictures that would give the appearance of long-term relationships and wrote backdated “love letters,” prosecutors say.

While some immigrants who enter into sham marriages might only want a better life in the U.S., others can exploit their green cards to move around freely and commit crimes and even acts of terrorism, law-enforcement authorities point out.

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