For the love of a green card

Marketplace Staff Dec 28, 2006

BOB MOON: The week leading up the New Year is one of the most popular times of the year to get married. Which means that Homeland Security could be very busy. Over the past year, the feds busted over a hundred people in four major marriage fraud rings. Some see it as a “wed-lock” to U.S. citizenship.

No one knows exactly how many marriages have been arranged for that purpose, but there’s no doubt it’s profitable, drawing anywhere from a couple-thousand, to as much as $60,000 a person.

Ramy Inocencio has been talking to some of the officials who figured this all out:

DAVID BELL: Frankly, it wasn’t rocket science. There had to be some sort of fraudulent activity going on here.

RAMY INOCENCIO: David Bell is clerk of the Arlington County Circuit Court in northern Virginia. His courthouse is a buzzing hive of marriage activity and marriage fraud. And, after three decades on the job, he knows why.

BELL: Virginia does not have a waiting period to get married. So you come to the courthouse, you pay a $30 fee, and you then can go get married immediately.

And it’s all over in less than an hour. In 2003, U.S. citizens with roots in the West African country of Ghana, saw a business opportunity. They started arranging marriages of convenience, matching up West African immigrants with Americans, for a fee.

An American gets a few thousand dollars. A facilitator gets up to 60,000. And the alien gets something priceless: U.S. citizenship.

Bell called the local police after he suspected the couples had just met that day.

BELL: Seldom were there any signs of affection towards one another. It was three and four couples at a time, all with identical backgrounds.

He also noticed the same two or three people always showed up with new West African marriage applicants, showing them where to sign, which counter to go to, and even asking for extra copies of the marriage licenses.

These were facilitators, and part of a Washington marriage-fraud ring of over 20 people, arranging a thousand to 1,300 marriages for Ghanaians who had the money.

For three years they were on a hot streak, until their services were frozen by ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau of the Department of Homeland Security.

James Sparrow is the chief of ICE’s Identity and Benefit Fraud Unit.

JAMES SPARROW: Marriage-fraud rings are a lucrative business. Dealing with the Arlington marriage-fraud ring, facilitators charged between $2,000 to $6,000.

But it wasn’t just in Virginia. Authorities found marriage-fraud rings across the country in New York, Seattle, Salt Lake City and Orange County, California. They’ve all since been busted.

The biggest operated in California. In November 2005, 44 Chinese and Vietnamese were arrested in “Operation Newlywed Game.”

Of all busted rings, that one turned the highest profit.

SPARROW: It could be as high as $60,000 for one person. Depending on what you can charge, you could make a million dollars.

But that kind of cash flow was a red flag for the IRS, which played a role in the busts.

SPARROW: The IRS is a significant player. Tax fraud and tax violations could be committed. Sometimes they’re not able to report the illicit income that they make when committing the immigration-fraud schemes.

But on the other end of the scheme are the American partners. Since the case is still open, police are reluctant to say how they’re recruited but they’re mostly women and from all walks of life.

Some were contacted over the Internet, while many others were approached on DC’s streets. Most of those were prostitutes and drug users desperate for a cash injection.

CHUCK ROSENBERG: The U.S. citizens who agree to marry the aliens were also paid about $500 each on their wedding day and about $300 a month for a year. So, roughly $4,000.

That’s Chuck Rosenberg. Chief prosecutor for the Arlington marriage fraud case and U.S. Attorney for Virginia’s Eastern District.

He says 19 of the 22 people indicted have pled guilty. They now face mandated prison terms of up to five years and fines of $250,000 per count. After prison, the alien faces deportation.

And that’s a relief to Paul Bell. For couples headed his way to the Arlington Courthouse, he now got a polite reminder.

BELL: Make sure you have appropriate ID. And Virginia is for lovers . . . not for frauds.

In Washington, I’m Ramy Inocencio, for Marketplace.

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