Eleven Southern California residents have been charged with running a large-scale marriage fraud “agency” that allegedly arranged hundreds of sham marriages in an attempt to circumvent immigration laws, Department of Justice officials announced Thursday.
Eight of the 11 defendants were arrested in California. They will make their initial appearances in federal court in Los Angeles, but will later appear in Boston.
The following people were indicted Thursday on conspiracy to commit marriage fraud and immigration document fraud:
- Marcialito Biol Benitez, a/k/a “Mars,” 48, a Philippine national living in Los Angeles
- Engilbert Ulan, a/k/a “Angel,” 39, a Philippine national living in Los Angeles
- Nino Reyes Valmeo, 45, a Philippine national living in Los Angeles
- Harold Poquita, 30, a Philippine national living in Los Angeles
- Juanita Pacson, 45, a Philippine national living in Los Angeles
- Felipe Capindo David, a/k/a “Pilipi” or “Peebles,” 49, a Philippine national living in Los Angeles
- Peterson Souza, 34, a Brazilian national living in Anaheim
- Devon Hammer, 26, of Palmdale
- Tamia Duckett, 25, of Lancaster, Inglewood and Palmdale
- Karina Santos, 24, of Lancaster
- Casey Loya, 33, of Lancaster and Palmdale
Benitez allegedly operated the so-called “agency” that arranged the marriages between foreign nationals and U.S. citizens, according to the indictment
The agency allegedly prepared and submitted false petitions, applications and other documents to substantiate the fake marriage and secure clients’ immigration statuses for a fee of between $20,000 to $30,000.
One of the foreign national clients lived in Massachusetts, officials said.
Benitez allegedly operated the agency out of offices in Los Angeles, where he employed his co-conspirators as staff, officials said.
Valmeo, Ulan, Poquita and Pacson allegedly assisted with arranging the marriages and submitting fraudulent documents including false tax returns.
Hammer, Duckett, Santos and Loya are believed to have served as “brokers” who recruited U.S. citizens willing to marry clients in exchange for a fee and monthly payments from the client spouses after the marriage, in order to keep the U.S. citizen “responsive and cooperative” until the client obtained lawful permanent resident status, authorities said.
It is also alleged that Souza and Capindo David referred prospective foreign national clients to the agency for a commission, around $2,000 per referral.
After pairing foreign national clients with citizen spouses, Benitez and his staff allegedly staged wedding ceremonies at chapels, parks and other locations, which were performed by hired online officiants. In many cases, the agency would take photos of the undocumented clients and citizen spouses in front of prop wedding decorations to later submit with immigration petitions, officials said.
Benitez and his staff then allegedly submitted fraudulent marriage-based immigration petitions to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Benitez and his staff coached clients and spouses through interviews with USCIS and advised clients about maintaining the appearance of a legitimate marriage. Benitez and his co-conspirators did this for at least 400 clients between October 2016 and March 2022, officials said.
Benitez and his co-conspirators would also allegedly 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 American spouses, according to the indictment. The agency would allegedly submit fraudulent applications on clients’ behalf for temporary restraining orders against spouses, but it was all based on fabricated domestic violence allegations, officials said.
The defendants would then submit the restraining order documentation along with immigration petitions to USCIS, in order to take advantage of VAWA provisions that allow non-citizen victims of spousal abuse to apply for lawful permanent resident status without their spouses’ involvement, authorities explained.
“These defendants’ alleged exploitation of this system for profit is an affront to our nation’s tradition of welcoming immigrants and prospective citizens,” United States Attorney Rachael S. Rollins. said. “Their alleged fraudulent behavior makes things harder for the vast majority of immigrants who follow the law and respect our immigration system. 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.”
The charge of conspiracy to commit marriage fraud carries a sentence of up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000, officials said.