BOSTON – A California man pleaded guilty today in federal court in Boston to running a large-scale marriage fraud “agency” that arranged hundreds of sham marriages for the primary purpose of circumventing immigration laws. This included, among other things, obtaining green cards under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) by claiming the undocumented clients had been abused by alleged American spouses.
Marcialito Biol Benitez, a/k/a “Mars,” 49, a Philippine national residing in Los Angeles, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit marriage fraud and immigration document fraud. U.S. District Court Judge Denise J. Casper scheduled sentencing for Jan. 10, 2024. Benitez was arrested and charged in April 2022.
Benitez operated what he and others referred to as an “agency” that arranged hundreds of sham marriages between foreign national “clients” and United States citizens, including at least one foreign national who resided in Massachusetts. The agency then prepared and submitted false petitions, applications and other documents to substantiate the sham marriages and secure adjustment of clients’ immigration statuses for a fee of between $20,000 and $35,000 in cash.
Benitez operated the agency out of brick-and-mortar offices in Los Angeles, where he employed his co-conspirators as staff. Among other things, Benitez’s staff allegedly assisted with arranging marriages, submitting fraudulent marriage and immigration documents for the agency’s clients – including false tax returns, as well as recruiting U.S. citizens to marry the agency’s clients in exchange for payment.
After pairing foreign national clients with citizen spouses, Benitez’s agency staged fake wedding ceremonies at chapels, parks and other locations, performed by hired online officiants. For many clients, the agency would take photos of undocumented clients and citizen spouses in front of prop wedding decorations for later submission with immigration petitions.
Benitez’s agency then submitted fraudulent, marriage-based immigration petitions to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the federal agency responsible for granting lawful permanent resident status. Benitez’s agency coached clients and spouses through interviews with USCIS and advised clients about maintaining the appearance of legitimate marriage to their spouses. Benitez’s agency arranged sham marriages and submitted fraudulent immigration documents for at least 600 clients between October 2016 and March 2022.
Benitez’s agency would assist certain clients – typically those whose spouses became unresponsive or uncooperative – with obtaining green cards under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) by claiming the undocumented clients had been abused by alleged American spouses. Specifically, the agency would submit fraudulent applications on clients’ behalf for temporary restraining orders against spouses based on fabricated domestic violence allegations. Benitez’s agency would then submit the restraining order documentation along with immigration petitions to USCIS, in order to take advantage of VAWA provisions that permit non-citizen victims of spousal abuse to apply for lawful permanent resident status without their spouses’ involvement.
Benitez is the seventh defendant to plead guilty in this case.
The charge of conspiracy to commit marriage fraud provides for a sentence of up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000. Sentences are imposed by a federal district court judge based upon the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and statutes which govern the determination of a sentence in a criminal case.
Acting United States Attorney Joshua S. Levy; Jodi Cohen, Special Agent in Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Boston Office; Chad Plantz, Special Agent in Charge of Homeland Security Investigations in San Diego; and Alanna Ow, Director of U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services, San Diego District. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California provided valuable assistance in this matter. Assistant U.S. Attorney David M. Holcomb of the Securities, Financial & Cyber Fraud Unit is prosecuting the case.
The details contained in the charging documents are allegations. The remaining defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.