By the time New York businessman Bob Williams realized his marriage to a much younger, buff and handsome South American man was a sham, it was too late. He was down $50,000 and well on his way to a nervous breakdown.
As his marriage unraveled in just a few short months, Williams was in for another shocker. His husband called the cops, alleged abuse, and, in doing so, fell under safeguards afforded to immigrants under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).
That law is praised for helping immigrant men and women victims of domestic abuse, but critics say it also gives marriage scammers an all-too-easy path to securing Green Cards — and hundreds or thousands cheat the system each year.
‘What they do, and it’s apparently common, is they seek out guys they can trick into a relationship to rip you off and get papers,’ Williams, who is in his 50s, told DailyMail.com.
‘And there’s no place for us to go, yet the politicians can’t stop bragging about the services they offer the immigrants.’
Federal authorities earlier this year bust open a California-based gang that arranged hundreds of fake marriages for Green Cards for non-citizens
Celebrities and politicians supported the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, which cracks down on domestic abuse. Pictured: actress and activist Angelina Jolie with various women senators in Washington, D.C., in February
Federal prosecutors in April said they had busted open a huge immigrant marriage fraud ring that made more than $8 million over five years by arranging bogus unions and filing more than 400 fake applications to USCIS.
DailyMail.com has not used Williams’ real name and will not identify the husband, due to sensitivities and legal issues around the case.
Still, his story echoes that of many American victims of marriage fraud — often involving middle-aged men and women, a younger foreigner who wants to live in the U.S., a whirlwind romance and a speedy wedding.
Williams says he met his future spouse on a dating site. It was ‘magical’ beginning and unusually fast — they wed within months and started making plans to bring the groom’s family stateside.
He missed the warning signs: urgent requests for cash for struggling relatives back home and hushed conversations between his husband and his friends in Spanish, which Williams does not speak. He kept on paying the bills, he says.
As soon as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) had processed his husband’s work permit, Williams says ‘everything changed’.
They started rowing relentlessly. It emerged that his husband was in a long-term, pre-existing relationship with another man, and he moved out.
Then, the spouse formally accused Williams of extreme cruelty and obtained a restraining order. He pursued his immigration process alone and now lives in another state. A messy divorce was concluded several years later.
Immigrants who marry Americans must typically spend several years living together, jointly submitting documents and going to interviews to show the union is real, and ultimately gaining permanent residency in the U.S.
VAWA provisions, however, allow immigrant spouses to instead show they were victims of ‘battery or extreme cruelty’, sideline their American partner and complete their Green Card process alone.
Claims of domestic abuse are scrutinized, but critics say immigration teams are swamped, little evidence is required, solo Green Card applications are rubber-stamped and the system is open to fraud.
For Williams, aside from the chaotic relationship stress that saw him shed 40lbs and mull suicide, the tarring of his name and the system’s apparent indifference to victims of marriage scams has been difficult to move on from.
‘It’s a cruel lesson in life,’ he said. ‘It sucks knowing others are walking right into it.’
A newly naturalized American citizen stands in celebration during a ceremony at the New York. The immigration system has many checks along the route to citizenship, but insiders warn of loopholes that cheats can exploit
More than 304,000 Green Cards were issued to spouses of U.S. citizens in 2019 — one of the most recent years for which data are available
While there are many cases of VAWA empowering immigrants to flee abusive spouses, there are also many cases, like Williams’, of Americans getting duped and later feeling let down by their country’s immigration system.
Many such victims share stories in Facebook groups like Marriage Fraud Victims Support Group and End Marriage Fraud for Immigration. The long-running reality show 90 Day Fiancé spotlighted many deceptive foreign spouses.
The full scale of marriage fraud is not known. The Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI), a legal action group, cites an estimate that 30 percent of all marriages between U.S. citizens and foreigners are ruses for a Green Card.
That estimate would amount to some 90,000 scam marriages, out of the 304,334 Green Cards issued to spouses of U.S. citizens in 2019 — one of the most recent years for which data are available.
That estimate covers all types of fraud, including when the American partner is in on the scam — aiding a foreign friend or even taking a payoff to convince USCIS the marriage is real. The going rate is $25,000.
The number of solo Green Card applications under VAWA has averaged around 3,000 in recent years. David North, a fellow of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank, says a ‘substantial number’ of these are bogus, but that could be anywhere from 20-70 percent.
According to prosecutors, the southern California criminal immigration gang would sometimes fabricate fake domestic violence cases and apply for Green Cards under VAWA
After receiving ‘Green Card’ permanent residency, immigrants can apply for citizenship. An immigrant (left), receives a naturalization certificate at a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office in New Jersey
USCIS says it works hard to protect immigrants who endure abuse at the hands of an American spouse, while also running ‘anti-fraud training’ courses to help officials root out liars.
‘If USCIS should identify any fraud indicators while adjudicating a VAWA petition, then the agency will take appropriate action,’ a spokesman told DailyMail.com.
The 1994 VAWA law is widely praised for tackling domestic violence. It is renewed regularly, including by the Biden administration in March. The Department of Justice this month bolstered VAWA anti-abuse efforts with grants worth $224.9 million.
Still, Allison Randall, acting director of the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women, last month acknowledged that while VAWA had helped many victims, its ‘policies and funding are not perfect’.
Allison Randall, acting director of the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women, says while VAWA has helped many victims, its ‘policies and funding are not perfect’
Marriage scammers are detected and prosecuted, but larger criminal enterprises have been easier to nab than lone scammers.
In April, federal prosecutors said they had busted open a huge immigrant marriage fraud ring that made more than $8 million over five years by arranging bogus unions and filing more than 400 fake applications to USCIS.
Based in southern California, the ring was allegedly led by Marcialito Biol Benitez, known as ‘Mars’, a Filipino who managed brokers who scoured for Americans willing to be paid to be paired in sham weddings.
When the marriages unraveled, often because the U.S. citizen was backing out, gang members fabricated fake domestic violence cases against them and applied for Green Cards under VAWA, court documents show.
Los Angeles-based lawyer Daniel Perlman described many Americans — mostly men — approaching him with stories like Williams’ hoping to press USCIS to act against their estranged partners.
VAWA laws should be ‘revisited’ to ‘close loopholes’, he said.
Many experts agree. RJ Hauman, from the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a think tank, said immigration officials with backlogs rubber stamp iffy VAWA applications rather than get bogged down in yet another drawn-out appeals process.
‘Congress must act immediately to close this VAWA fraud loophole and provide additional funding for enhanced investigations of these alleged crimes,’ Hauman told DailyMail.com.
USCIS urges Americans who have fallen victim to marriage scams to file reports.
Matt O’Brien, a former immigration judge and USCIS fraud detection chief who now heads investigations at IRLI, says U.S. citizens are ‘targets of people seeking quick access’ to U.S. jobs and colleges and need to be aware.
‘Use your common sense! If you are a regular 40-50 year old American and a stunningly attractive 20-year-old foreign national falls for you during a week-long vacation, it probably wasn’t love at first sight,’ he told DailyMail.com.
A member of the Honor Guard of the American Legion salutes as the National Anthem is played during a naturalization ceremony for 25 people in Rutland, Vermont — a solemn occasion for the new Americans