Federal officials have charged 11 Californians with running a marriage fraud agency that arranged hundreds of fake marriages to help foreign nationals obtain U.S. work permits, authorities said.
The defendants have been charged with conspiracy to commit marriage and immigration document fraud, the US Department of Justice announced Thursday. The charges can carry a sentence of up to five years in prison, three years of probation and a fine of $250,000.
“Marriage fraud is a serious crime that threatens the integrity of our nation’s legal immigration system,” the US attorney said. Rachael S. Rollins said in a statement. “The alleged exploitation of this system by these defendants for profit is an affront to our country’s tradition of welcoming immigrants and prospective citizens.”
Marcialito Biol Benitez, 48, a Filipino national living in Los Angeles, ran an “agency” that allegedly arranged at least 400 sham marriages between US citizens and foreign clients between October 2016 and March 2022, authorities said.
Benitez and his employees are accused of preparing and submitting false petitions, applications and other documents to authenticate bogus marriages and reclassify the immigration status of their clients, charging fees of $20,000 to $30,000 paid in cash , said federal prosecutors.
Benitez ran the agency from offices in Los Angeles, prosecutors said, where he employed Engilbert Ulan, 39; Nino Reyes Valmeo, 45; Harold Poquita, 30; and Juanita Pacson, 45. The team helped arrange the weddings and submit fraudulent documents, including false tax returns, prosecutors said. All are Filipino nationals living in Los Angeles.
Benitez also reportedly employed Southern California residents Devon Hammer, 26; Tamia Duckett, 25; Karina Santos, 24; and Casey Loya, 33. They served as “brokers” who recruited US citizens willing to marry clients in exchange for a fee and monthly payments from the client until they obtained their permits, often called green cards, the authorities said. authorities.
In addition, Felipe Capindo David, 49, a Filipino national living in Los Angeles, and Peterson Souza, 34, a Brazilian national in Anaheim, reportedly helped refer potential clients to the agency for a commission of around $2,000. dollars per referral, federal prosecutors said. .
After securing brides from U.S. citizens for their clients, Benitez and his staff allegedly staged fake wedding ceremonies performed by hired online officiants taking photos in front of prop decorations, federal officials said.
The photos would then be submitted as part of fraudulent marriage-based immigration applications to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Benitez’s agency reportedly coaches clients and spouses on immigration interviews and how to maintain the appearance of a legitimate marriage, federal officials said.
Benitez and her team have also helped clients file domestic violence complaints and file temporary restraining orders against their spouses if they become uncooperative, authorities said. The federal Violence Against Women Act allows non-citizen victims of abuse to apply for lawful permanent resident status without the involvement of their spouse.
“Their alleged fraudulent behavior makes it harder for the vast majority of immigrants who follow the law and respect our immigration system,” Rollins said. “Beyond that, by allegedly submitting bogus claims alleging domestic abuse, these defendants have caused further harm, this time to actual victims and survivors of domestic abuse.”
Eight of the 11 defendants were arrested in California and made their first appearances in California Central District Court on Thursday, federal officials said.
One of their foreign clients lived in Massachusetts, so the defendants will appear in federal court in Boston at a later date, authorities said.
Los Angeles Times