- The Washington Times - Friday, April 8, 2022

Federal prosecutors say they have busted a massive immigrant marriage fraud ring that made more than $8 million over the past five years by arranging bogus unions and filing at least 400 fake applications with Homeland Security.

When the sham marriages didn’t work out because the U.S. citizens got cold feet, the fraudsters would fabricate fake domestic violence cases against them and then apply for green cards, signaling permanent legal status, under a law meant to protect battered spouses, according to court documents.

Eleven people were indicted in the fraud, which prosecutors said provided full service to “clients” by recruiting “spouses” — often homeless people — and coaching both people on how to appear to be a couple, arranging fake wedding ceremonies and submitting bogus packages to Homeland Security.

“It is the utmost honor and privilege to become an American citizen, and the individuals we arrested today have allegedly made a sham of that process,” said Joseph R. Bonavolonta, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston office.

The ring was based in southern California and the man whom the feds say was the ringleader, Marcialito Biol Benitez, is known as “Mars.” He worked with “brokers” who scoured for American citizens willing to be paid to be paired in sham marriages.

In one 15-month period, the feds say four brokers managed to recruit at least 193 people for sham marriages, including Devon Hammer, who is accused of netting 94 just by himself.

Clients would pay between $20,000 and $30,000 for the full-service sham marriage packages. The brokers would get about $2,000 per U.S. citizen recruit, the citizens got a cut, and the rest went to Mr. Benitez and his assistants, four of whom are included in the indictment.

Experts say marriage fraud is rampant, and there have been some stunning cases.

Investigators last year revealed a fraud ring they say was run by a former Iraqi refugee who specialized in bringing other Iraqis to the U.S., and earlier this year a foreign service officer at the State Department was sentenced for having engaged in a fraudulent marriage.

Marriage can be used as a way to cure illegal immigrant status or to win permanent status for those who entered on visitor visas and want to gain more permanent status here. They also offer quick access to benefits such as work permits and tax breaks.

That makes fake marriages an attractive option, and sometimes those involved are quite blatant. Online message boards on marriage-minded sites even run ads from both Americans looking to offer themselves as willing spouses and migrants looking for citizens.

Yet U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that referees immigration marriage applications, is moving to erase some controls.

The same day the charges were announced this week against the $8 million fraud ring, USCIS announced it was canceling a policy that had required mandatory in-person interviews for married couples when a spouse was seeking to upgrade a conditional green card.

Those are issued in cases where a marriage was less than two years old.

Ur Jaddou, director of USCIS, said waiving the interview was intended to cut down on massive case backlogs, and said there’s no reason to require an interview in cases where there’s “sufficient evidence” in the record that a marriage is bona fide.

“This update is consistent with agency priorities to break down barriers in the immigration system, eliminate undue burdens on those seeking benefits, and effectively respond to stakeholder feedback and public concerns,” Ms. Jaddou said.

The court documents don’t say whether the marriages involved in the fraud ring were for conditional green cards, though given the timeframes of the marriages and applications, it’s likely that some of them would have been.

USCIS said it doesn’t have estimates of what percentage of cases still will be subject to interviews, but said the old policy of mandatory interviews was not an “efficient” use of the agency’s time.

Robert Law, a former senior USCIS official in the Trump administration, questioned the move.

“The USCIS political team continues to double down on making immigration fraud easier to commit,” said Mr. Law, who’s now at the Center for Immigration Studies. “As DOJ aggressively prosecutes marriage fraud, Ur Jaddou and her team continue to cover their eyes and order adjudicators to rubber-stamp approvals.”

Court documents revealed the efforts that the “agency,” as the fraudsters called their operation, made to fool Ms. Jaddou’s immigration officers.

They held sham ceremonies at chapels that didn’t demand proof of valid marriages in order to shoot photos of the couple on their wedding day, and built invented or inflated backstories for the U.S. citizens, giving them better jobs and more income to convince USCIS they could support their immigrant spouses — a requirement under the law, authorities said.

The fraudsters would also coach the fake couples on things that USCIS adjudicators might ask at their initial interviews, with a list of 211 “possible questions” the couples were supposed to go over to get their stories straight.

That included everything from who slept on which side of the bed, to what color their spouse’s toothbrush was.

The fraudsters would also scour social media of the U.S. citizens and ordered them to take down any posts that might raise flags, prosecutors alleged. In one instance the ring even told someone to change her cell phone background photo because it showed a picture of her child, which could raise questions if a USCIS adjudicator were to see it.

Clients could come from across the country, but they had to prove residence in California, since that’s where the U.S. citizens were living. So the fraud ring would rent out their own addresses and mailboxes to clients to use on USCIS forms.

According to court documents, the ringleader was worried that people would find out he was recruiting homeless people to act as spouses, so he worked to try to enhance their backstories to make them more attractive, both to clients and to immigration officers.

Sometimes the American citizen acting as a “spouse” would back out of the sham marriage, and that’s when the scam became truly mendacious, prosecutors said.

The fraud ring would fabricate a story of spousal abuse, file for a temporary restraining order in court citing the bogus abuse story, then file that document with USCIS to try to earn a green card under the Violence Against Women Act.

VAWA fraud, like marriage fraud, is believed to be rampant. And since the number of green cards that can be issued under VAWA is capped at 10,000 a year, bogus claims can end up crowding out legitimate cases of abuse, said Rachael S. Rollins, U.S. attorney in Massachusetts, where the case was unsealed Thursday.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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