Nearly a dozen California residents were busted for arranging hundreds of “sham marriages” between Americans and immigrants who paid to get green cards out of the bogus nuptials, the feds said Thursday.
Marcialito “Mars” Biol Benitez, 48, was the alleged ringleader of the Los Angeles “agency” that paired US citizens with foreign national clients and staged weddings filled with prop decorations and online officiants, according to the Department of Justice
Benitez and his ten cohorts would then submit fake wedding pictures with false documents and petitions to US Citizenship and Immigration Services, and coach the newlyweds through interviews with immigration officials, prosecutors alleged.
The suspects allegedly pulled off the scam at least 400 times between 2016 and March, charging clients between $20,000 and $30,000 in cash to orchestrate the racket and pay Americans both an upfront fee to participate and a monthly stipend to keep up appearances, officials said.
If a client’s new spouse became uncooperative in the scam, the suspects would help them get green cards under the Violence Against Women Act by fabricating domestic violence charges against them, federal prosecutors alleged.
The 11 suspects are a mix of men and women ages 24 to 48 living in and around the LA area, according to the release. Six of them, including Benitez are Philippine nationals, and one is a citizen of Brazil.
Some of the suspects allegedly helped stage the marriages and paperwork, while others recruited both foreign nationals and US citizens willing to say “I do” for a referral fee.
“Marriage fraud is a serious crime that threatens the integrity of our nation’s lawful immigration system,” said United States Attorney Rachael Rollins.
“These defendants’ alleged exploitation of this system for profit is an affront to our nation’s tradition of welcoming immigrants and prospective citizens. Their alleged fraudulent behavior makes things harder for the vast majority of immigrants who follow the law and respect our immigration system.”
The suspects were indicted Thursday in Massachusetts, where one of their alleged clients lives. Eight of them were arrested in California and appeared in federal court, according to officials.