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11 charged with running a ‘sham marriage’ agency that obtained over 400 green cards

Clients were charged between $20,000 to $30,000 for a fake marriage, complete with wedding photos and help with the paperwork.

(CN) — A federal grand jury indicted 11 people this week in connection with running a large-scale "sham marriage" agency, allegedly arranging hundreds of fake marriages for immigrants trying to get green cards.

The ringleader of the operation, according to the indictment, was Marcialito Biol Benitez — aka Mars — a 48-year-old Philippine national living in Los Angeles. Benitez, who was arrested Thursday along with seven others living in Southern California, referred to his business as an "agency." Together they are accused of setting up more than 400 marriages for people since October 2016.

"These defendants’ alleged exploitation of this system for profit is an affront to our nation’s tradition of welcoming immigrants and prospective citizens," said United States Attorney Rachael Rollins in a written statement. "Their alleged fraudulent behavior makes things harder for the vast majority of immigrants who follow the law and respect our immigration system."

According to the indictment, Mars used a network of brokers to find immigrants looking for green cards, as well as to find suitable spouses. Clients were charged between $20,000 and $30,000 in cash.

A certain amount of effort was put into the matchmaking. According to the indictment, "once Mars identified one or more potential spouses for a client, Mars would present the client with the prospective spouse and arrange meetings to assess whether the client and the spouse were a 'good fit' — i.e., that their marriage would not raise suspicions" with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

For the marriages to look real, the weddings to look real, photographs were taken to document the occasion, often with wedding props and decorations, at times even taken at real wedding chapels. Aside from preparing fraudulent paperwork, Mars' brokers would also prepare the spouses for the wedding, taking them shopping for appropriate wedding outfits.

"Mars would also command the brokers to ensure that spouses were not under the influence of drugs on the dates of meetings and/or wedding ceremonies," according to the indictment.

Scenes from a sham marriage (U.S. Justice Department affadavit)

Mars' service to his clients continued even after the day of matrimony. He and his team helped their clients open joint bank accounts together, register vehicles and buy life insurance together and file taxes jointly. He had his clients "meet regularly and take photographs" together, sometimes hosting the couple at his office in Koreatown. He would, at times, have his brokers tell the spouses to remove social media posts revealing information about the spouse's real families and domestic partners. And of course, Mars had his clients coached before interviews with USCIS.

"During coaching sessions, Mars and associates would use written lists of practice questions," according to the indictment. "One such list explained that 'the main objective is to prove that the marriage is genuinely true' and instructed that 'couples/spouses should show GOOD CHEMISTRY during the interview.'"

The written guide, attached in an affidavit, had more than fifty questions. Clients were told to know everything about their pretend partners — their hobbies, favorite cologne, friends' names, what they did on their first three dates and so on. One question even read, "What is the schedule of wife monthly period/menstruation? How often do you have sex in a week? What is your spouse favorite sex position?"

If a spouse became unresponsive or uncooperative, according to the indictment, Mars would sometimes resort to a different tactic: using the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, a provision of which allows non-citizen victims of spousal abuse to apply for lawful permanent residence status on their own. For those clients, Mars and his staff would fill out applications for temporary restraining orders, alleging domestic violence.

Mars and his ten associates are each charged with one count of conspiracy to commit marriage fraud and immigration document fraud, which carries a sentence of up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

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