LOS ANGELES – Federal authorities arrested 11 people in connection with a sophisticated marriage fraud scheme that targeted Asians seeking U.S. citizenship.
The arrests took place Tuesday in Los Angeles and Orange counties and the Bay Area, according to officials who described the operation as one of the biggest of its kind in the country.
Chinese and Vietnamese nationals were charged up to $60,000 to marry American citizens to obtain green cards, authorities said. Couples were provided with fake wedding photographs, joint tax returns and even love letters.
"Marriage fraud is not a new phenomenon but clearly this scheme was one of the most ambitious and creative we've ever encountered," said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
ICE launched an investigation into the Orange County-based ring three years ago after authorities began to notice U.S. citizens who were seeking green cards for more than one spouse. Operation Newlywed Game resulted in 44 people -- mostly Chinese- and Vietnamese-Americans -- being indicted on charges including conspiracy, misuse of visas and marriage fraud. Not all have been arrested.
Recruiters for the ring allegedly received $1,000 for each U.S. citizen they found who was willing to marry a foreigner and submit a visa petition. The U.S. citizens allegedly received $3,000 to $5,000, plus travel expenses, to fly to Vietnam or China for arranged marriages and to apply for visas for their spouses, authorities said.
Wedding scams have been an ongoing problem in the Vietnamese community, said Lan Quoc Nguyen, an immigration attorney in Westminster.
Some of the defendants were released to house arrest and others held on bail ranging from $25,000 to $75,000 during a hearing Tuesday in federal court. Many of the suspects were already in custody in other cases and three remained at large.
Anyone who fraudulently got green cards could be deported, officials said. The investigation is continuing.
"I believe this is one small tip of a larger iceberg," said Frank Johnston, assistant special agent in charge.
In recent months, other phony marriage rings were broken up in Iowa, Florida and Chicago.