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11 Held in Alleged Marriage Scam

Officials arrest some of 44 people accused of using phony weddings to offer citizenship to Vietnamese and Chinese nationals.

November 30, 2005|Anna Gorman and David Reyes | Times Staff Writers

Calling it one of the biggest operations of its kind in the country, federal authorities Tuesday arrested 11 men and women in L.A. County, Orange County and the Bay Area for operating an alleged phony marriage scheme that targeted Asians seeking U.S. citizenship.

Authorities said the document ring, which charged Chinese and Vietnamese nationals up to $60,000 to marry American citizens to obtain green cards, was unusually sophisticated. The couples produced fake wedding photographs, joint tax returns and even love letters.

"Marriage fraud is not a new phenomenon," said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement whose office is in Orange County, "but clearly this scheme was one of the most ambitious and creative we've ever encountered."

Operation Newlywed Game, a three-year investigation involving multiple law enforcement agencies, resulted in indictments of 44 people, mostly Chinese and Vietnamese Americans. The charges include conspiracy, misuse of visas and marriage fraud.

"It doesn't totally eliminate" the problem, said Assistant U.S. Atty. Carmen Luege, who is prosecuting the case, "but it makes a significant impact."

During a hearing Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Nakazato released some of the defendants to house arrest while setting bail for others at $25,000 to $75,000. Many of the suspects were already in custody in other cases, and three remained at large.

Earlier in the day, immigration agents searched several sites throughout the state, including a Little Saigon home where they discovered the records of a defunct travel agency believed to be a front for the sham marriages.

Lan Quoc Nguyen, an immigration attorney in Westminster, said wedding scams have been an ongoing problem in the Vietnamese community.

Nguyen said part of the problem is that it takes many years for Vietnamese to get visas to enter the U.S.

"People think it would be easy to pretend they are husband and wife, and they think they can get away with it," Nguyen said. "In reality, it's not that easy."

For foreigners, marriage to U.S. citizens is often the fastest way to immigrate. The spouse of a U.S. citizen can become a permanent resident in about nine months, and then can apply for citizenship after three years.

In recent months, there have been phony marriage cases in other states. In June, 32 U.S. citizens and Kenyan nationals were indicted in Iowa for their alleged roles in marriage fraud schemes. Three months later, 30 people were indicted in south Florida for allegedly arranging fake marriages for more than 100 foreigners. Also in September, a dozen others were indicted in Chicago in a similar case.

In the Orange County case, Citizenship and Immigration Services employees discovered the alleged scheme when they began to notice U.S. citizens who were petitioning for more than one spouse to receive green cards. They passed the information to ICE, which launched its own investigation.

As part of the probe, agents reviewed immigration files, travel histories and employment records.

According to immigration authorities, recruiters were paid $1,000 for each U.S. citizen they referred who was willing to marry a foreigner and submit a visa petition. The U.S. citizens received $3,000 to $5,000, in addition to travel expenses, to fly to Vietnam or China for an arranged marriage and to apply for visas for their spouses, authorities said.

Back in the United States, the foreigners and the U.S. citizens were coached on what to say in interviews with immigration officials, and were given bogus documents and photographs, authorities said. The leaders "basically took care of everything that the individual would need to complete the fraudulent marriage," said Kevin Jeffery, a deputy special agent in charge for ICE investigations in Los Angeles

"It just demonstrates how desperate people are to get here and to what lengths they will go," he said.

Those arrested Tuesday were Julie Tran, Kathy Tran, Minh Hong Duong, Hoa Hoc Phung, Cuong Thoia Diep, Thuy Linh Thi Tran, Paul Hill, Victor Quoc Truong, Lien Tam Vo, Alex Pham and Tuong Vi Thi Phan.

Julie and Kathy Tran, who are believed to be sisters, allegedly arranged some of the sham marriages in December 2000. Others named in the indictment included Nancy Ngoc Bui, a U.S. citizen who allegedly was paid $10,000 for marrying two Chinese men in 2002.

Not all of the suspects were Asian. One defendant, Paul Hill, allegedly married at least two women.

The investigation is continuing. Anyone who fraudulently got green cards could be placed into deportation proceedings, officials said.

"I believe this is one small tip of a larger iceberg," said Frank Johnston, assistant special agent in charge. "We will continue to work offshoots of this case."

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