6 Filipinos in California indicted in 'large-scale' marriage fraud — US DOJ | Global News
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6 Filipinos in California indicted in ‘large-scale’ marriage fraud — US DOJ

/ 12:48 PM April 09, 2022

MANILA, Philippines — Six California-based Filipinos have been indicted in an alleged conspiracy to run a “large-scale marriage fraud agency” that arranged sham marriages in order to circumvent immigration laws, the United States’ Department of Justice (US DOJ) said.

In a statement dated Thursday, the US DOJ identified the indicted Filipinos as Marcialito Biol Benitez, Engilbert Ulan, Nino Reyes Valmeo, Harold Poquita, Juanita Pacson, and Felipe Capindo David.

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Another five individuals identified as Peterson Souza, Devon Hammer, Tamia Duckett, Karina Santos, and Casey Loya were also indicted for the alleged scheme to commit marriage and immigration document fraud.

According to the US DOJ, eight of the defendants, including Benitez, were arrested in California. The statement did not identify the others who were arrested.

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According to the indictment, Benitez operated what he referred to as an “agency” that arranged hundreds of sham marriages between foreign national clients and US citizens.

Benitez allegedly operated the agency out of “brick-and-mortar offices” in Los Angeles where he employed his co-conspirators as staff, based on the statement. Valmeo, Ulan, Poquita and Pacson allegedly assisted in arranging marriages and submitting fraudulent marriage and immigration documents for the agency’s clients.

Meanwhile, Hammer, Duckett, Santos and Loya allegedly served as “brokers” who recruited US citizens willing to marry the agency’s clients “in exchange for an upfront fee and monthly payments from the client spouses following the marriage.”

The US DOJ said this is to maintain the cooperation of the US citizen until the client spouse obtains permanent resident status.

“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,” the justice department added.

Benitez and his staff then allegedly submitted fraudulent marriage-based immigration petitions to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which is responsible for granting lawful permanent resident status.

“It is alleged that Benitez and his staff coached clients and spouses through interviews with USCIS and advised clients about maintaining the appearance of legitimate marriage to their spouses. According to the indictment, Benitez and his co-conspirators arranged sham marriages and submitted fraudulent immigration documents for at least 400 clients between October 2016 and March 2022,” the US DOJ said.

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Benitez and his co-conspirators would then allegedly assist certain clients, typically those whose spouses became uncooperative, in obtaining green cards under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) by claiming that the clients had been abused by their American spouses.

“Specifically, the agency would allegedly submit fraudulent applications on clients’ behalf for temporary restraining orders against spouses based on fabricated domestic violence allegations,” the US DOJ’s statement read.

“Benitez and his co-conspirators would then allegedly 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,” it added.

According to the US DOJ, the charge of conspiracy to commit marriage fraud has a sentence of up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a fine of $250,000.

However, the department noted that the details contained in the charging documents are allegations, and that the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law.

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