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Diasporian News of Sunday, 14 March 2010

Source: TELEGRAM & GAZETTE

Vows for visas: Bogus marriage scheme probed

WORCESTER, USA — An alleged fraud marriage scheme has chugged along in Worcester for years, slowed — but not stopped — by a federal investigation and the lingering suspicion of City Clerk David J. Rushford.

The scheme has involved a network of arrangers based in the city, according to Mr. Rushford. The arrangers connect African immigrants with Americans who, for a sum of $5,000 to $6,000, raise their hands and swear to the clerk's staff they are entering into a lawful, loving marriage. He said the scheme involved hundreds of sham marriages over the course of at least four years.

One of the people who allegedly married an immigrant for money was Darlene L. Haynes, the pregnant Worcester woman who was murdered and had her baby cut from her womb last year.

“We saw people who did not necessarily know each other's last names, who did not know basic information about each other,” Mr. Rushford said.

An arranger, or handler, was present at every marriage that Mr. Rushford suspected was fraudulent. They would stand behind the applicants as they filled out the marriage license, he said.

“It would be a group effort,” he said.

When the scheme was at its peak from 2005 to 2008, the same arranger would be present for several marriages a week, he said. The flow of fraudulent marriages slowed through 2009, Mr. Rushford said, and he has not seen any suspect marriages at his office since last fall.

Marriage fraud is punishable by up to five years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines. Immigrants and Americans who enter into sham marriages for the purpose of evading immigration laws also can be charged with making false statements, and making false representations. Each charge carries a separate penalty of five years in prison and $250,000 in fines. In addition, the immigrants who perpetrated the fraud are subject to deportation.

The most common sham marriage brought to the clerk's office, Mr. Rushford said, was between a male African immigrant and a female down-and-out American, often someone suspected of being a recovering alcoholic or drug addict.

Not every marriage was illegitimate, however.

“Sometimes, a marriage that looked fake turned out to be real,” Mr. Rushford said. “We could never tell for sure.”

Officials say the immigrants who participated in the alleged marriage fraud scheme mostly came from Ghana, drawn from the city's large Ghanaian population, followed by Kenya, Tanzania and several other African countries. There are precious few ways for an immigrant who has overstayed a visa or is in the country illegally to obtain a valid U.S. visa. Getting married to a U.S. citizen is one option.

Several prominent members of the city's Ghanaian community were asked if they had heard about a marriage fraud scheme in the city. While they acknowledged that the scheme exists, they declined to discuss it because revealing its existence would leave a stain on the city's Ghanaian community, they said.

According to Mr. Rushford and a March 2006 letter from federal immigration authorities to City Manager Michael V. O'Brien, the Massachusetts State Police also was involved in the investigation.

Neither Mr. Rushford nor officials from the state police or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would confirm the names of suspected arrangers. Two suspected arrangers contacted by the Telegram & Gazette denied the allegations. One agreed to meet a reporter with his lawyer, only to later cancel the appointment.

Harold A. Ort, public affairs officer for U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, said it is agency policy not to comment on an ongoing, open investigation. David A. Procopio, a state police spokesman, said it is a federal investigation and referred comment to federal authorities.

Although the investigation was launched sometime before March 2006, it has not led to any arrests.

According to a Worcester man who was paid to marry three different immigrant women to help them get their visas, Ms. Haynes also married an immigrant for money as part of the scheme.The source agreed to talk if his identity was not disclosed.

“She was one of them who took the money, like I did,” the 40-year-old man said. “It seemed like a low-risk way to make money.”

In documents filed in U.S. District Court, the federal government said Ms. Haynes' 2006 marriage to Kofi B. Awuah was a sham.

“Ms. Haynes and Mr. Awuah's marriage was not bona fide, but was instead entered into for the primary purpose of circumventing immigration laws,” wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Christine J. Wichers, in response to a federal lawsuit Mr. Awuah filed to force immigration officials to rule on his visa application.

The U.S. Attorney's office declined to comment on evidence it possesses indicating the marriage was not legitimate. No charges were ever filed against Mr. Awuah or Ms. Haynes.

Participating Americans in the scam netted between $5,000 and $6,000, paid out in installments over two years, as certain benchmarks were met, the man said. After the wedding at City Hall, wedding photos were taken, rings exchanged, and more photographs were taken of the immigrant in the American's apartment, the source said.

“That was done so the immigrant looked like they lived there,” the man explained. Arrangers also took a payment for their services, the man said.

With the aid of the arrangers, the couple would assemble paperwork to “prove” that they were together, he said. The couple would open a joint bank account, obtain joint insurance, and have the immigrant's name placed on bills — phone, cable, electricity — that are mailed to the American's home. The American would agree to receive all mail from immigration officials on behalf of the immigrant, and immediately notify the immigrant that the mail had arrived.

The final step was to be interviewed by ICE agents, who would ask detailed questions to ascertain whether the marriage was legitimate. Once ICE was convinced the marriage was real, the American would receive $2,500, the source said. The American would then receive payments of several hundred dollars a month until the visa was processed, he said.

The man said that while the immigrant's family often knew about the fake marriage, the American's family did not.

The arrangers found Americans willing to marry for money in several ways, he said. Through a network of sources on the street, and in Worcester's convenience stores and bodegas, arrangers put out the word that they would be willing to pay Americans to marry immigrants, he said.

Current immigration laws make it nearly impossible for an immigrant in the country illegally to obtain legal documents, according to Worcester immigration lawyer Randy Feldman. Most scenarios involve sending the immigrant back to his or her own country for 10 years, and then reapplying with ICE.

“I know why some immigrants (enter into fake marriages),” he said, “because there are currently few or no other ways to legally immigrate to the U.S.”

Mr. Feldman said he had heard from clients in the Worcester immigrant community about the fake marriage scheme. He said he did not take on clients whom he suspected were in fake marriages, and advised his clients against it. He said he has had clients with legitimate marriages who have encountered increased scrutiny by immigration officials because of the fake marriage scheme.

“When someone starts to engage in fake marriages, especially for money and more so as part of an organized ring — obviously the organizer who is profiting and the participant are doing something very wrong, something lacking dignity,” he said. “No matter how unfair our immigration laws are, which they very much are, this activity cannot be condoned.”

In October 2005 Mr. Rushford notified ICE agents that arrangers, or handlers, were regularly showing up at the city clerk's office with couples who did not know each other.

In a series of meetings between Mr. Rushford and ICE agents, Mr. Rushford laid out the scheme as he knew it. He gave ICE agents copies of “hundreds” of marriage certificates that he and the clerk's office suspected were illegitimate. He said he did not keep copies for himself, nor did he mark the original marriage licenses still in storage at City Hall. “ICE has everything,” he said. “It's their show.”

In March 2006, ICE Acting Special Agent in Charge Matthew J. Etre requested, in a letter to City Manager Michael V. O'Brien, that a hidden video camera be installed at the city clerk's office. The camera would be controlled by Mr. Rushford, who had agreed to participate in the investigation. In a letter to ICE, City Solicitor David M. Moore wrote that using such a camera would be in violation of state law because Mr. Rushford was not a law enforcement officer.

Mr. Moore asked ICE to indemnify Mr. Rushford and Mr. O'Brien from any legal action as a result of taping people applying for marriage licenses. “Until such assurances are received, neither the city of Worcester, nor Michael V. O'Brien as its city manager and David J. Rushford as its city clerk can consent to your proposal,” Mr. Moore wrote.

Mr. Moore said recently he does not remember ICE ever responding to the city's letter.

“We gave our, ‘Yeah, but,' and they disappeared,” he said of federal investigators. “We weren't exactly denying (their request). We were saying, ‘You need a warrant or a court order.' ”

He said federal authorities never offered an explanation. “They tell you what they need to tell you, I guess,” he said.

There are legitimate reasons why an investigation into a fraud marriage scheme could go on for so long, said Michael Wildes, a New Jersey-based immigration lawyer and former federal prosecutor in New York

“This kind of case requires a lot of human resources and assets,” he said. “It is unlikely that the government would go forward without wiretaps, forensic evidence, surveillance, or good old detective work.”

Marriage fraud schemes have been broken up in other parts of the country.

In August 2009, more than 50 people were arrested in “Operation Honeymoon's Over,” a marriage fraud scheme involving Eastern European immigrants in Cincinnati. In 2008, “Operation Knot So Fast” netted 83 arrests of South American immigrants who sought to marry Americans in Orlando and several other Florida cities. A former Virginia Beach, Va., police officer was arrested in November for arranging marriages between Navy sailors and Eastern European women. In the same month, five employees of the Cook County traffic court in Chicago and five Filipino immigrants were arrested for arranging fake marriages.

Mr. Wildes said marriage fraud is not being ignored by the federal government.

“I believe the government understands that people can and will use any means necessary to get a footing onto U.S. soil,” he said. Marriage provides a backdoor entrance for immigrants — and possibly criminals or terrorists — to stay in the U.S. legally, he said.

“They have to take it seriously, because it's so widespread,” he said.

Mr. Rushford wonders whether investigators have moved on. He said he has not heard from ICE for months. Late last year, he was told the status of the investigation was not his concern.

“They told me I am the local employee, and they are the federal agents, and they were handling it,” he said.

Despite his misgivings, Mr. Rushford said he never turned down any of the marriage requests. He said the nuptials met the state's legal standards, and that he was not in a position to deny marriage licenses just because he suspected they were fraudulent.

“You don't sit and judge anyone who comes before you,” he said. “I just suspected something was going down.”

City and town clerks have wide latitude to deny couples who apply for marriage licenses, according to Nantucket Town Clerk Catherine Flanagan Stover, president of the New England Association of City and Town Clerks.

Town and city clerks do not ask about a person's immigration status, nor do they pry into a prospective couple's private life beyond asking for their names, dates of birth, places of birth, names of parents and whether either of them have been married before.

“We really are not the marriage police,” said Ms. Stover. “It's up to the applicant to determine whether a marriage is legal or illegal.”

Contact Aaron Nicodemus by e-mail at anicodemus@telegram.com.

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