Federal prosecutors have broken up a major marriage fraud ring in Houston that charged nearly 50 Vietnamese migrants up to $70,000 to provide them with fake spouses, phony wedding pictures and fraudulent documents, all for a shot at a U.S. green card.
Investigators were tipped to the scam after an officer at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spotted something fishy in 2017 and alerted fraud investigators, unraveling a scam that spanned from Texas to Vietnam and involved nearly 50 fake marriages.
Now 96 people, many of them illegal immigrants, stand charged, and USCIS is looking at whether it can revoke visas or green cards for those who took advantage of the scam.
“Marriage fraud is a serious crime,” said Tony Bryson, district director at USCIS, who said the operation showed the government has the ability to sniff out scams.
Yet nobody has a good sense for how widespread fraud is in marriage. One former USCIS employee told The Washington Times that 30% to 50% of marriage-based applications are at least “questionable” and should go under stricter scrutiny.
The Houston case followed a typical pattern — though the price tag was on the higher end compared with other scams.
Authorities say the operation was run by Ashley Yen Nguyen, 53, who was based in Southwest Houston and controlled operatives throughout Texas and Vietnam.
She provided complete services including matching willing fraudulent spouses, creating fake wedding photo albums, and producing falsified IDs, tax documents and property records to create a story to sell to USCIS to convince immigration officers that the marriages were legitimate.
Customers were charged $50,000 to $70,000. The rates depended on where they stood in the immigration process.
The goal was to gain green cards, signifying permanent lawful status — the key step for immigrating to the U.S. and getting on the pathway to citizenship.
According to court documents, one of the U.S. citizens recruited to take part in a sham marriage was paid $300 a month, plus expenses for rent at a separate home.
Authorities stressed that the couples never lived together and never consummated their marriages.
It turns out neither is needed to prove a valid marriage.
But authorities did get confessions from some of those charged that they were part of sham marriages, according to court documents.
In one instance, Homeland Security Investigations agents interviewed a man, Nam Phuong Hoang, who admitted he paid to be matched with a sham wife.
He appeared for his USCIS interview to adjust his status, but his supposed wife, Brandy Lynn Eisley, didn’t show. When agents later visited his address, he admitted that Ms. Eisley wasn’t really his wife, Special Agent Paul Skinner said in an affidavit.
Immediately after he was confronted, Mr. Hoang bought a plane ticket to flee to Vietnam. Before he could leave the country, he was arrested and is now facing deportation, as well as marriage and visa fraud charges.
Another defendant, Uyen Ha Bao Tran, was stopped last month just as she was about to board a flight to Vietnam at George Bush Intercontinental Airport. Over the next hours, she detailed her own sham marriage, saying that she had lived in the U.S. for three years but had not dated, lived together nor consummated her marriage with her supposed husband.
She said she was introduced to her sham husband, Julio Cesar Vaconcelos, by her uncle, and paid him thousands of dollars to pretend to be wedded.
All told, authorities filed charges stemming from 47 marriages, with dates ranging from 2013 to 2018.
Some of the names and dates are redacted in the document, signifying some of the 46 defendants who are not yet in custody. Fifty others are.
A USCIS official said Tuesday the agency is now waiting to see what the courts do.
“If or when convictions are obtained, we will look at implementing a post-conviction plan to review cases and take legally appropriate actions when immigration benefits have been fraudulently obtained,” the official said.
Andrew “Art” Arthur, a former immigration judge and now a resident fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, said the $70,000 price tag was surprising but telling.
“It just goes to show you what a green card’s worth,” he said.
Mr. Arthur said no good study has been conducted to try to determine the scope of marriage fraud. Part of the problem is that if someone is successful at perpetrating the scam, “we’re never going to know about it.”
“The requirements for a marriage-based visa are not high,” he said.
USCIS officials can flag cases based on some tells, such as massive age differences or cultural gaps, an inability to speak each other’s language, or marriages arranged by third parties.
In a Boston case filed last year, authorities determined that one man had engaged in several sham marriages over the decade from 2003 to 2013. He specialized in women from sub-Saharan Africa.
USCIS first flagged him in 2009 when he admitted to three sham marriages. Yet he went on to have two more sham marriages after that.
When agents confronted him a second time, he said he had found God and wanted to “set the record straight” on his criminal activities.
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