A California man pleaded guilty this week to federal charges that he ran a fraudulent agency that arranged hundreds of sham marriages for clients trying to obtain green cards, according to the Justice Department.
The man, Marcialito Biol Benitez, 49, a Philippine national residing in Los Angeles, submitted fraudulent immigration documents for at least 600 clients from October 2016 to March 2022, including some that claimed his clients had been abused by their alleged American spouses, according to a statement released by the department.
He pleaded guilty on Wednesday to conspiracy to commit marriage fraud and immigration document fraud, according to documents filed in the U.S. District Court in Boston. Mr. Benitez, who was arrested in April 2022, faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. His sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 10.
A lawyer for Mr. Benitez refused to comment on Thursday.
According to prosecutors, Mr. Benitez, one of 11 people charged in the scheme, ran the operation from a brick-and-mortar office in Los Angeles, where he employed co-conspirators and charged clients up to $35,000 in cash to prepare and submit false petitions, applications and other documents on their behalf.
The staff recruited U.S. citizens to marry clients and “staged fake wedding ceremonies” at locations including chapels and parks, according to prosecutors. Photographs of these ceremonies would then be submitted as part of immigration petitions, according to prosecutors, who said that the agency would also coach clients and spouses through interviews with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
In some cases, the agency would help clients obtain green cards under the Violence Against Women Act, which allows migrants who have been abused to apply for permanent residency without their spouses’ involvement. According to prosecutors, the agency submitted temporary restraining orders based on “fabricated domestic violence allegations” as part of the immigration petitions.
These actions, prosecutors said, were particularly egregious, given they violated a stipulation meant to protect the most vulnerable. The defendants “did further harm, this time to real victims and survivors of domestic violence,” Rachael S. Rollins, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, said in a statement released when the charges were brought last year.
Mr. Benitez is the seventh person to plead guilty in connection with the sham marriages, according to the Justice Department. There were 10 other defendants identified in the original affidavit. Six of them, including Mr. Benitez, are Philippine nationals.
Under the plea agreement, prosecutors agreed to recommend a 42-month prison term, a fine, and a period of supervised release, according to court documents, which also noted that Mr. Benitez understood pleading guilty could affect his immigration status. Those consequences, the documents show, could include “being automatically removed from the United States.”