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Operators of large-scale marriage fraud agency sentenced following HSI San Diego, partner investigation

SAN DIEGO — Four California-based people have been sentenced in federal court in Boston for their roles in running a large-scale marriage fraud agency that arranged hundreds of sham marriages for the primary purpose of circumventing immigration laws. This included, among other things, obtaining green cards under the Violence Against Women Act by falsely claiming that the undocumented clients had been abused by American spouses. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the FBI, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services investigated the case.

“The defendants in this case knowingly and willing abused our current immigration system to obtain fraudulent green cards,” said HSI Special Agent in Charge Chad Plantz. “These fraudsters and nefarious actors are responsible for over 600 illegal applications filed with the courts, HSI will not stand for this abuse. In response, HSI was able to detected the fraud with swift enforcement actions to stop the chain migration that only multiplies the consequences of this abuse. We thank our partner agencies that assisted in this shameful case.”

The defendants, all nationals of the Philippines residing in Los Angeles, were arrested and charged along with seven others with conspiracy to commit marriage fraud and immigration document fraud in April 2022.

Marcialito Biol Benitez aka Mars, 50, was sentenced on March 7 to 22 months in prison and three years of supervised release. Benitez pleaded guilty in September 2023. Also on March 7, Juanita Pacson, 48, was sentenced to two years of supervised release with the first four months on home detention after previously pleading guilty in September 2023.

Engilbert Ulan, 43, was sentenced on March 6 to 14 months in prison and three years of supervised release. Ulan was convicted by a federal jury in November 2023.

On Jan. 11, Nino Valmeo, 47, was sentenced to three years of supervised release with the first six months on home confinement after pleading guilty in August 2023.

Benitez, with the help of co-defendants, operated what he and others referred to as an “agency” that arranged hundreds of sham marriages between foreign national clients and U.S. citizens, including at least one foreign national who resided in Massachusetts. The agency prepared and submitted false petitions, applications and other documents to substantiate the sham marriages and secure adjustment of clients’ immigration statuses for a fee of between $20,000 and $35,000 in cash.

Benitez operated the agency out of brick-and-mortar offices in Los Angeles, where he employed co-defendants Ulan and Valmeo as staff. Ulan and Valmeo assisted with arranging marriages and submitting fraudulent marriage and immigration documents for the agency’s clients. Benitez relied on several other co-conspirators to recruit U.S. citizens to marry the agency’s clients in exchange for payment.

After pairing foreign national clients with citizen spouses, Benitez’s agency staged fake wedding ceremonies at chapels, parks and other locations, performed by hired online officiants. Pacson, a friend of these co-defendants who worked at one of the chapels, assisted with sham wedding ceremonies and marriage documents. For many clients, the agency would take photos of undocumented clients and citizen spouses in front of prop wedding decorations for later submission with immigration petitions.

Benitez’s agency then submitted fraudulent, marriage-based immigration petitions to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency responsible for granting lawful permanent resident status. Benitez, Ulan, Pacson and others, advised clients about creating and maintaining the appearance of legitimate marriage to their spouses.

Ulan conducted practice interviews with the agency’s clients and their fake spouses for the purpose of preparing couples to pass required interviews with immigration authorities. He coached the sham couples to provide the same fabricated answers to questions posed during green card interviews and conceal the fraudulent nature of the marriages.

Benitez, Ulan, Valmeo and Pacson assisted clients with preparing fraudulent supporting documents submitted as evidence of the marriages’ legitimacy. Ulan, Valmeo and Pacson also rented the use of their apartment addresses to clients who lived outside of Los Angeles so those clients could list these addresses as their own on green card applications and related documents to make it appear to immigration authorities that they were living with their sham spouses in the Los Angeles area. Ulan and Valmeo also received cash commissions for referring new clients to the agency.

Benitez’s agency would assist certain clients — typically those whose spouses became unresponsive or uncooperative — with obtaining green cards under the Violence Against Women Act by claiming the undocumented clients had been abused by alleged American spouses. Specifically, Benitez, Valmeo and others would submit fraudulent applications on clients’ behalves for temporary restraining orders against spouses based on fabricated domestic violence allegations. Benitez’s agency would then submit the restraining order documentation along with immigration petitions to USCIS, in order to take advantage of VAWA provisions that permit noncitizen victims of spousal abuse to apply for lawful permanent resident status without their spouses’ involvement.

Benitez’s agency arranged sham marriages and submitted fraudulent immigration documents for at least 600 clients between October 2016 and March 2022.

Several co-defendants were previously sentenced by Judge Casper for their roles in this scheme. Peterson Souza, who referred noncitizens to the agency for a fee, was sentenced to five months in prison and three years of supervised release with the first five months on home detention, and Felipe David, who referred clients to the agency for assistance with VAWA-based applications was sentenced to three years of supervised release.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California provided valuable assistance in this matter. Assistant U.S. Attorneys David M. Holcomb and Leslie A. Wright of the Securities, Financial & Cyber Fraud Unit prosecuted the case.

HSI is the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats, specifically those criminal organizations that exploit the global infrastructure through which international trade, travel and finance move. HSI’s workforce of more than 8,700 employees consists of more than 6,000 special agents assigned to 237 cities throughout the United States, and 93 overseas locations in 56 countries. HSI’s international presence represents DHS’ largest investigative law enforcement presence abroad and one of the largest international footprints in U.S. law enforcement.

Originally published at https://www.ice.gov/news/releases/operators-large-scale-marriage-fraud-agency-sentenced-following-hsi-san-diego-partner

- Part of VUGA -USA media group