$8 million large-scale marriage fraud scheme arranged 600 fake weddings for green cards: USDOJ

Still photos of staged marriages. / U.S. Attorney's Office, District of Massachusetts

Four Philippine nationals living in Los Angeles were sentenced for their roles in an expansive $8 million scheme that arranged more than 600 fake marriages for green cards by falsely claiming the undocumented clients were abused by their American spouses, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office, District of Massachusetts. 

The ringleader, 50-year-old Marcialito Biol Benitez, was sentenced to 22 months in prison for the scam, which operated between October 2016 and March 2022, officials said.

Co-defendants Engilbert Ulan, 43, received a 14-month prison sentence, and Juanita Pacson, 48, was placed on four months of house arrest. Another co-defendant, 47-year-old Nino Valmeo, received six months of home detention.

All four suspects were convicted in 2023 of conspiracy to commit marriage fraud and immigration document fraud. Additionally, several other co-defendants were previously sentenced for their roles in the scam that involved at least one foreign national living in Massachusetts.

Benitez operated the "agency" out of brick-and-mortar offices in Los Angeles, where he hired co-defendants Ulan and Valmeo as staff. Ulan and Valmeo assisted with arranging marriages and submitting fake marriage and immigration documents for the agency’s clients. The fake weddings were performed at chapels, parks, and other locations, performed by hired online officiants, officials said. 

The agency went as far as taking pictures of its clients and citizen spouses in front of prop wedding decorations that would be used for later submission with immigration petitions.

Still photos of staged marriages. / U.S. Attorney's Office, District of Massachusetts

Benitez relied on several other co-conspirators to recruit U.S. citizens to marry the agency’s clients in exchange for payment, officials said.

The agency then prepared and submitted false petitions, applications and other documents to substantiate the fake marriages and secure adjustment of clients’ immigration statuses for a fee of between $20,000 and $35,000 in cash.

According to officials, the agency held practice interviews with its clients and their fake spouses to prepare them to pass required immigration interviews and maintain the appearance of legitimate marriages.

Three of the co-defendants even rented the use of their apartment addresses to clients who didn't live in Los Angeles so those clients could list the addresses as their own on green card applications and related documents to make it appear that they were living with their fake spouses in the Los Angeles area.

"This case is a prime example of multiple agencies working as a team to uphold and protect our country’s lawful immigration system," Alanna Ow, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for the San Diego District, said in a statement after the indictments were handed down.

The Center for Immigration Studies estimates one in six new legal immigrants in 2022 gained their status by marrying either a U.S. citizen or a green card holder.