Federal officials have charged 11 Californians with running a marriage fraud agency that arranged hundreds of sham marriages to help foreign nationals obtain U.S. work permits, authorities said.
The defendants were indicted on charges of conspiracy to commit marriage and immigration document fraud, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Thursday. The charges can carry a sentence of up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000.
“Marriage fraud is a serious crime that threatens the integrity of our nation’s lawful immigration system,” U.S. Atty. Rachael S. Rollins said in a statement. “These defendants’ alleged exploitation of this system for profit is an affront to our nation’s tradition of welcoming immigrants and prospective citizens.”
Marcialito Biol Benitez, 48, a Philippine national living in Los Angeles, operated an “agency” that allegedly arranged at least 400 sham marriages between U.S. citizens and clients that were foreign nationals 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 the sham marriages and reclassify their clients’ immigration status, charging fees of $20,000 to $30,000 paid in cash, federal prosecutors said.
Benitez operated the agency out of 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 with arranging the marriages and submitting fraudulent documents, including false tax returns, prosecutors said. All are Philippine nationals living in Los Angeles.
Benitez also allegedly employed Southern California residents Devon Hammer, 26; Tamia Duckett, 25; Karina Santos, 24; and Casey Loya, 33. They served as “brokers” who recruited U.S. citizens willing to marry clients in exchange for a fee and monthly payments from the client until they secured their permits, often referred to as green cards, authorities said.
In addition, Felipe Capindo David, 49, a Philippine national living in Los Angeles, and Peterson Souza, 34, a Brazilian national in Anaheim, allegedly aided in referring prospective clients to the agency for a commission of around $2,000 per referral, federal prosecutors said.
After securing U.S. citizen spouses 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 petitions to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Benitez’s agency allegedly coached clients and spouses on immigration interviews and how to maintain the appearance of a legitimate marriage, federal officials said.
Benitez and his staff also helped clients claim domestic abuse and file temporary restraining orders against their spouses if they became uncooperative, authorities said. The federal Violence Against Women Act allows noncitizen victims of abuse to apply for lawful permanent resident status without their spouses’ involvement.
“Their alleged fraudulent behavior makes things harder for the vast majority of immigrants who follow the law and respect our immigration system,” Rollins said. “Beyond that, by allegedly submitting false applications that claimed domestic abuse, these charged defendants did further harm, this time to real victims and survivors of domestic violence.”
Eight of the 11 defendants were arrested in California and made their initial court appearances in the Central District of California on Thursday, federal officials said.
One of their foreign national clients lived in Massachusetts, and so the defendants will appear in federal court in Boston at a later date, authorities said.