22 Charged In Probe Of Sham Marriages

22 Charged In Probe Of Sham Marriages
Citizenship the Goal, Authorities Allege

By Jerry Markon and Jamie Stockwell
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 8, 2006; Page B01

The clerk at the Arlington County courthouse was growing suspicious. People who seemed to barely know one another were getting married. The same people kept showing up to help them get a license.

Alerting the authorities, the clerk set in motion a three-year investigation that resulted yesterday in federal charges against 22 people in what officials called a major marriage fraud scheme. The sham nuptials were intended to speed the route to U.S. citizenship for illegal immigrants, prosecutors said.

In all, almost 1,000 phony marriages might have been performed, mostly in Arlington but also in Alexandria, Fairfax County, Manassas, the District and Maryland, according to the charges. The immigrants, mostly from Western Africa, would pay as much as $6,000 to be introduced to their “spouse,” usually on the day of the marriage. They would then be coached on how to lie to immigration inspectors.

“That's a pretty big number of marriages when you're talking about a relatively small geographic area,” U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg said as he announced the charges at a news conference in the Arlington courthouse where the scheme began to unravel. “We think this is a very, very big problem.”

The case is part of an intensifying federal crackdown, which began after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, on marriage and other immigration document frauds. In the past six weeks alone, federal officials have broken up or obtained guilty pleas in at least four marriage fraud rings across the country, including a California scheme dubbed “Operation Newlywed Game” in which 44 people were charged.

In the Northern Virginia case, those charged include nine people accused of arranging the marriages, 10 illegal immigrants who married and three U.S. citizens who married them. Law enforcement officials said the investigation is continuing.

Although authorities said there is no terrorism connection in the Arlington scheme, terrorists have on occasion married U.S. citizens to stay in the country, including seven men convicted of plotting to blow up New York landmarks in the 1990s. “It's a vulnerability in our immigration system that is available to terrorists and other criminals,” said William F. Reid, acting assistant director of the office of investigations for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The crackdown grew out of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, but experts said marriage fraud has been a problem for years. “Just look at our culture. See the movie 'Green Card,' ” said Crystal Williams, deputy director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “For many years, fraudulent marriages for immigration purposes were treated as something light and kind of funny. But there is nothing comical about it. It's a felony.”

Nineteen of the 22 people charged were arrested yesterday, and 17 of them appeared in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. Fifteen were ordered detained pending further hearings, prosecutors said. The charges include immigration fraud, conspiracy to commit immigration fraud and marriage fraud.

Attorneys for the defendants had not been appointed late yesterday afternoon. Fifteen of the defendants are men, and 16 of the 22 were born in Ghana. Five are American-born, and one was born in Kenya.

Law enforcement officials praised the unidentified Arlington clerk who uncovered the scheme, saying the clerk observed the same brokers standing beside people who appeared to barely know each other getting marriage licenses. Officials declined to provide further details.

The clerk told Arlington police, who started an investigation but quickly concluded that they would need federal assistance. “We definitely were not aware of the scope and depth of the fraud,” Arlington County Police Chief M. Douglas Scott said.

Using cooperating witnesses and undercover officers, authorities unraveled a scheme in which immigrants paid $2,500 to $6,000 to the brokers, who would find U.S. citizens willing to marry them. The U.S. citizens were paid about $500 on the day of the marriage and $300 more a month from the immigrant for about a year. Authorities said male and female immigrants participated in the marriages, but they could not provide a breakdown.

The immigrants were then coached on how to answer questions from immigration inspectors. They were instructed to learn false stories about how they met their sham spouse and prepare answers about which side of the bed their partner slept on. Some of the couples obtained state identification documents and utility bills listing a false shared address.

Immigrants who marry U.S. citizens can get a visa to stay in the country immediately, instead of having to wait years, and can shave several years off gaining citizenship.

Law-enforcement officials said the scheme took advantage of marriage laws they called lax in Virginia compared with those of the rest of the Washington region. Couples can apply for and be granted a license within minutes — and can get married the same day. The District has a three-day waiting period between the application and the issuance of the license. In Maryland, the wait is two days.

Yesterday, at the Arlington clerk's office, for example, a young couple, arm in arm, applied for a marriage license. Ten minutes later, a clerk asked them to raise their right hands and handed them a license. A sign nearby said: “Marriage licenses are $30 cash only. No checks, debit or credit cards.”

Rosenberg said federal authorities are “going to take a very close look” at whether the difference in Virginia law is making the state a haven for marriage fraud. But Bruce Hirsch, a family lawyer based in Reston, said Virginia falls “within the normal range” of marital waiting periods nationally.