Several Filipinos in California charged in sham marriage, fraudulent green card operation

Eleven individuals in total have been charged for illegally circumventing immigration laws from 2016 to 2022

ELEVEN individuals attached to a California-based “marriage fraud ‘agency’” have been charged for allegedly arranging hundreds of fraudulent marriages to bypass legal immigration channels, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), confirmed in a statement released on Thursday, April 7.

At least six of the 11 alleged fraudsters are Filipino nationals and based in Los Angeles: Marcialito “Mars” Benitez, 48; Engilbert “Angel” Ulan, 39; Nino Reyes Valmeo, 45; Harold Poquita, 30; Juanita Pacson, 45; and Felipe Capindo “Pilipi” David, 49.

The other individuals attached to the “large-scale” conspiracy who were charged include Peterson Souza, a 34-year-old Brazilian national living in Anaheim; 26-year-old Devon Hammer of Palmdale; 25-year-old Tamia Duckett of Lancaster, Palmdale, and Inglewood; 24-year-old Karina Santos of Lancaster; and 33-year-old Casey Loya of Lancaster and Palmdale.

According to the release, Benitez was the alleged leader of the so-called agency, which arranged sham marriages between U.S. citizens and foreign nationals for at least 400 clients between October 2016 and March 2022.

According to the DOJ, eight of the alleged conspirators, including Benitez, were arrested on Thursday in California.

“This case is a prime example of multiple agencies working as a team to uphold and protect our [country’s] 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.”

The operations were allegedly carried out of physical offices in Los Angeles, where Benitez employed the reported co-conspirators as agency staff. According to the DOJ, four of the Filipinos — Pacson, Poquita, Ulan, and Valmeo — falsified and submitted tax returns and other immigration documents for the agency’s clients.

Meanwhile, Ducket, Hammer, and Santos, recruited U.S. citizens who were willing to marry the agency’s clients in exchange for money — an upfront fee and monthly fees — from their undocumented spouses. These payments were to keep the U.S. citizen quiet and “cooperative” until their undocumented spouse gained lawful permanent resident (LPR) status, the DOJ said.

The agency would then stage weddings in chapels, parks, and other locations and hired officiants. They would stage photoshoots in front of wedding paraphernalia to include in fraudulent immigration petitions that would allegedly be sent to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the federal agency in charge of grinding LPR status.

If the U.S. citizen became uncooperative during the interim before LPR status was granted, Benitez and his co-conspirators would then allegedly assist their clients with obtaining green cards under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), falsely claiming that the undocumented individuals had been abused by their American spouses, the indictment read.

Among other things, the VAWA — which was enacted in 1994 — has a special provision that allows non-citizen victims of spousal abuse to apply for LPR status without involving the spouses.

“These defendants’ alleged exploitation of this system for profit is an affront to our nation’s tradition of welcoming immigrants and prospective citizens,” U.S. 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.”

Anyone who is charged with marriage fraud is typically fined $250,000 and sentenced to up to five years in prison and three years of supervision after release. n

Klarize Medenilla

Klarize Medenilla is a staff writer and reporter for the Asian Journal. You can reach her at [email protected].

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