Eleven Charged with Arranging Sham Marriages and Submitting Fraudulent "Green Cards" Applications for over 400 Non-Citizens
Defendants allegedly operated Los Angeles-based marriage and immigration fraud “agency”
BOSTON – Eleven California-based individuals have been indicted in connection with running a large-scale marriage fraud “agency” that allegedly arranged hundreds of sham marriages entered into for the primary purpose of circumventing immigration laws.
The following defendants were indicted today on conspiracy to commit marriage fraud and immigration document fraud:
- Marcialito Biol Benitez, a/k/a “Mars,” 48, a Philippine national residing in Los Angeles;
- Engilbert Ulan, a/k/a “Angel,” 39, a Philippine national residing in Los Angeles;
- Nino Reyes Valmeo, 45, a Philippine national residing in Los Angeles;
- Harold Poquita, 30, a Philippine national residing in Los Angeles;
- Juanita Pacson, 45, a Philippine national residing in Los Angeles;
- Felipe Capindo David, a/k/a “Pilipi” or “Peebles,” 49, a Philippine national residing in Los Angeles;
- Peterson Souza, 34, a Brazilian national residing in Anaheim, Calif.;
- Devon Hammer, 26, of Palmdale, Calif.;
- Tamia Duckett, 25, of Lancaster, Inglewood and Palmdale, Calif.;
- Karina Santos, 24, of Lancaster, Calif.; and
- Casey Loya, 33, of Lancaster and Palmdale, Calif.
Eight of the defendants, including Benitez, were arrested today in California. They will appear in federal court in the Central District of California today and appear in Boston at a later date.
According to the indictment, Benitez operated what he and others referred to as an “agency” that arranged hundreds of sham marriages between foreign national “clients” and United States citizens. One of those foreign national clients resided in Massachusetts. The agency 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.
“Marriage fraud is a serious crime that threatens the integrity of our nation’s lawful immigration system,” said United States Attorney Rachael S. Rollins. “These defendants’ alleged exploitation of this system for profit is an affront to our nation’s tradition of welcoming immigrants and prospective citizens. 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. Today’s arrests are the result of impressively comprehensive, cross-country agency collaboration. My office will continue to work with our law enforcement partners across the country to identify and hold accountable those who seek to violate U.S. law by fraud of any sort.”
“It is the utmost honor and privilege to become an American citizen, and the individuals we arrested today have allegedly made a sham of that process by running a large-scale marriage fraud “agency” that arranged hundreds of fake marriages for foreign nationals, racking up millions of dollars in profits. 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 Federal Bureau of Investigation, Boston Office “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.”
“Homeland Security Investigations and our law enforcement partners will continue to prosecute individuals and criminal organizations, who profit from manipulating the immigration system,” said Chad Plantz, Special Agent in Charge of Homeland Security Investigations in San Diego. “Today’s arrests are a result of an extensive multi-agency marriage and document fraud investigation. HSI will continue to conduct criminal investigations into immigration benefit fraud as this crime threatens the integrity of the lawful immigration system.”
“This case is a prime example of multiple agencies working as a team to uphold and protect our countries lawful immigration system,” said Alanna Ow, Director of U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services, San Diego District. “Protecting America’s promise is at the core of what we do and I’m very proud of our Fraud Detection and National Security unit for the steadfast work they do to fulfill the agency’s mission on a daily basis.”
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 Valmeo, Ulan, Poquita and Pacson assisted with arranging marriages as well as submitting fraudulent marriage and immigration documents for the agency’s clients, including false tax returns. Hammer, Duckett, Santos and Loya allegedly served as “brokers,” who recruited U.S. citizens willing to marry the agency’s clients in exchange for an upfront fee and monthly payments from the client spouses following the marriage – to keep the U.S. citizen responsive and cooperative until the client spouse obtained lawful permanent resident status. It is also alleged that Souza and Capindo David referred prospective foreign national clients to the agency for a commission, typically around $2,000 per referral.
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.
Benitez and his staff then allegedly submitted fraudulent, marriage-based immigration petitions to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the federal agency 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.
It is further alleged that Benitez and his co-conspirators would assist certain clients – typically those whose spouses became unresponsive or uncooperative – with obtaining green cards under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) by claiming the undocumented clients had been abused by alleged 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. 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.
The charge of conspiracy to commit marriage fraud provides for a sentence of up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000. Sentences are imposed by a federal district court judge based upon the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and statutes which govern the determination of a sentence in a criminal case.
U.S. Attorney Rollins, Boston FBI SAC Bonavolonta, San Diego HSI SAC Plantz and San Diego USCIS Director Ow made the announcement today. U.S. Attorney Rollins personally thanked U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California Tracy Wilkison for their valuable assistance in this matter. Assistant U.S. Attorney David M. Holcomb of Rollins’ Securities, Financial & Cyber Fraud Unit is prosecuting the case.
The details contained in the charging documents are allegations. The defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.