A Philippine national living in Los Angeles was arrested Thursday on federal charges alleging he ran a large-scale marriage fraud scheme that allegedly arranged hundreds of sham marriages used to circumvent immigration laws.
Marcialito Biol "Mars" Benitez, 48, is charged along with 10 other SoCal residents with conspiracy to commit marriage fraud for allegedly operating an "agency'' that arranged hundreds of sham marriages between foreign nationals and United States citizens, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Boston.
The business then allegedly 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 $30,000 in cash, according to prosecutors.
“We believe their alleged scheme broke immigration laws that are in place to protect public safety and created a disadvantage for those seeking to earn their citizenship lawfully,'' said Joseph R. Bonavolonta, special agent in charge of the Boston office of the FBI. "This case should serve as a warning to others that the FBI and our law enforcement partners are united in our efforts to disrupt and dismantle criminal enterprises that seek to circumvent our laws by fraudulent means."
Benitez allegedly operated the agency out of brick-and-mortar offices in Los Angeles, where he employed his co-conspirators as staff.
Specifically, it is alleged that some defendants assisted with arranging marriages as well as submitting fraudulent marriage and immigration documents for the agency's clients, including false tax returns. Other defendants allegedly served as "brokers," who recruited U.S. citizens willing to marry the agency's clients in exchange for a fee and monthly payments from the client spouses following the marriage.
After pairing foreign national clients with citizen spouses, Benitez and his staff allegedly 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, according to prosecutors.
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Benitez and his co-conspirators would allegedly also assist certain clients -- typically those whose spouses became unresponsive or uncooperative -- with obtaining green cards under the Violence Against Women Act by claiming the undocumented clients had been abused by alleged American spouses, prosecutors said.
The charge of conspiracy to commit marriage fraud provides for a sentence of up to five years in prison, prosecutors noted.