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ICE officials target sham marriages

A Florida roundup nets at least 46 arrests. Foreign visitors are accused of paying U.S. citizens to wed.

May 10, 2008|Jim Leusner | Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, FLA. — The four-tiered cake the newlyweds were about to cut was plastic. The glasses and plates on the reception table were empty. And the bride wore casual shoes under her wedding gown.

Those were among the clues that first caught the attention of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials after they searched the offices of Winter Garden-based All Kind Services U.S.A. In a back room were the cake, the fake reception hall and a rack with several wedding dresses.

"The cake is the first clue. . . . And the running shoes are a nice touch, too," said Mark Garrand, assistant special agent in charge of ICE in Orlando.

Investigators soon realized that the photos and props were identical in many of the 25 marriage cases they were probing with All Kind Services involving Central and South American visitors accused of paying for spouses so they could stay and work in the United States.

On Friday, ICE officials and federal prosecutors said such photos were among key evidence in Operation Knot So Fast, a Florida roundup of 83 people this week accused of organizing or participating in sham marriages in Orlando, Cocoa Beach, Jacksonville, Tampa, Sarasota and Fort Myers.

At least 46 people were arrested in the Orlando area and surrounding counties by ICE and FBI agents, U.S. marshals, and Orange and Osceola county deputies, and more arrests are expected.

At a news conference Friday in Orlando, U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill displayed marriage photos of Hugo Luppu, 29, an Argentine visitor accused of paying for an arranged marriage in January 2005 in Orange County, Fla., with Angelia Raimer, 25, an American citizen from Melbourne, Fla., so he could remain in the country.

O'Neill said that case was typical of foreigners paying up to $10,000 for arranged marriages, including up to $2,500 paid to the American spouses participating in the scam.

Luppu and Raimer were arrested this week and charged with immigration fraud.

"In these photographs, there are no pictures of people in the audience," O'Neill said. "They're having photos taken to make it look like these sham marriages were legitimate." Immigration officials said foreigners who often overstayed their visas paid various companies so they could marry Americans and stay in the country.

Several central Florida companies and their operators were accused of coaching the new couples on dealing with immigration officials and government documents.

Robert Weber of Tampa, who heads ICE investigations in central Florida, said immigration-marriage fraud is a multimillion-dollar industry across the country and a priority target for his agency. The agency investigated about 2,300 such cases in 2004. The number reached more than 5,200 in 2006 and the first half of 2007.

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