An Army soldier’s conviction on marriage fraud charges last week pulled the curtain back on what experts say is a problem within the military, with troops entering into sham unions with immigrants who are in the country illegally in order to earn more money for themselves and to help the migrants stay in the country.
Samuel Manu Agyapong, a Ghanaian immigrant who’d already won U.S. citizenship for himself, was found guilty of helping an undocumented immigrant — a fellow Ghanaian — through a bogus marriage.
Barbara Oppong parlayed it into a pathway to citizenship, while Agyapong got a significant boost in pay for being married.
According to prosecutors, Agyapong, a former sergeant, was part of a larger fraud ring at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where investigators exposed at least a half-dozen sham marriages, usually involving at least one person from Ghana looking to erase illegal status and gain a foothold here.
The conviction came Friday — about the same time that Homeland Security was announcing a new leniency program for immigrants with connections to the U.S. military, including speedier citizenship for them and their families. And for some deported veterans, the new policy will allow them a chance to return.
But the North Carolina case serves as a warning.
“U.S. Soldiers who continue to engage in marriages to foreign nationals in order to reside off base, obtain [Basic Allowance for Housing], and allow the alien access to military bases and military and immigration benefits jeopardize and erode the critical infrastructure of government installations, and our national security,” said G. Norman Acker III, the acting U.S. attorney whose office is prosecuting the case in federal civilian court.
Sham marriages aren’t the only immigration-related legal entanglement for members of the military.
June saw several instances of active-duty troops arrested on charges of smuggling undocumented immigrants.
In Texas, two soldiers were caught at a Border Patrol checkpoint. Agents said they found two Mexican nationals crammed inside the trunk of the soldiers’ sedan. The soldiers said the smuggler who recruited them to drive specifically told them to wear their uniforms, figuring agents would be less likely to scrutinize the car of American troops, according to court documents.
Just days after the Texas arrest, agents in California caught a Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton after spotting him driving two undocumented immigrants from Mexico.
He is the latest in a string of more than two dozen Marines at Camp Pendleton whom authorities have connected with smuggling.
But it’s the sham marriage situation that could become a bigger issue with Homeland Security‘s new push to “remove barriers to citizenship” for members of the military.
In the North Carolina case, three Ghanaian immigrants who’d earned U.S. citizenship have been accused of then trying to rent that privilege out to undocumented immigrants in a mutually beneficial arrangement.
Married troops can live off base, and get a housing allowance. Their spouses can have illegal status forgiven, get on a pathway to citizenship, and get access to military spouse benefits such as health care and base privileges.
A 2013 Marine Corps Times investigation found Marines could get more than $20,000 a year in additional pay and allowances by being married.
Marriage fraud among troops happens for more than just immigration reasons, with the housing and other pay boosts proving attractive enough. Some troops will even advertise online for a spouse in order to marry and get the benefits.
Immigration, though, offers a special incentive, and sniffing out fraud is difficult no matter what the case.
Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, said in the immigration context, marriage fraud rates may be as much as a quarter of applicants. But U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Homeland Security agency that handles legal immigration applications, rarely investigates, she said.
In the North Carolina case, a 2019 tip sent to Army investigators helped blow the cover on Agyapong and unravel the broader scam. But for that tip, they might have gotten away with it, Ms. Vaughan said.
“What’s noteworthy is that this soldier probably did not perceive much of a risk in committing this fraud, and perhaps did not even consider it to be wrong,” she said.
Sometimes, the migrants are quite brazen.
In one case out of Fort Carson, Colorado, an immigrant couple from Trinidad and Tobago who overstayed their visas continued to live publicly as a family even though one of them had married an Army sergeant to win legal status. The sergeant in that case was sentenced to eight months in prison.
Homeland Security didn’t respond to a request for comment.
According to court documents, the Fort Bragg fraud operation was run by Ebenezer Asane, Agyapong’s best friend and also an immigrant from Ghana who had been in the military.
Asane paid thousands of dollars to soldiers for their assistance in the scams. One soldier demanded $3,600 to take part in a fake marriage, while another soldier was paid a $2,000 finder’s fee for recruiting a soldier willing to marry, prosecutors said.
The fraud ring seemed to specialize in Ghanaians who’d entered on legal visas but never left, becoming undocumented immigrants when their visas expired. Among them was Asane’s brother, according to court documents.
In Asane’s case, prosecutors said he even had his actual girlfriend be one of the witnesses at his sham marriage.
He would also coach couples on questions they would have to answer at USCIS during their in-person interviews to get approval of their marriage-related immigrant petitions.
Asane boasted of a 100% success rate in finding matches. He was given a 44-month sentence.
Agyapong’s sentencing is scheduled for this fall, and he faces up to 25 years in prison.
One person charged in the fraud ring, James Earnest Ekow Arthur, was acquitted.