Massive Marriage Fraud Scheme in Houston
On May 13, 2019, U.S. Attorney Ryan L. Patrick; Special Agent in Charge Mark Dawson of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations; and District Director Tony Bryson of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced that 50 people were in custody for participating in a large-scale marriage fraud scheme.
The marriage fraud scheme was one of the largest ever in the Houston area. The investigation took several years to complete, required cooperation and coordination across various agencies, and resulted in 96 individuals being charged.
According to the indictment, the scam involved the creation of sham marriages for aliens to illegally enter the U.S. and secure immigrant status. Each beneficiary spouse paid approximately $50,000-$70,000 to obtain full lawful permanent resident status. It is alleged that Ashley Yen Nguyen headed the organization and that she, and others, recruited and paid U.S. citizens to act as petitioners in the scheme. The organization went so far as to create fake wedding albums (for ceremonies that never happened) and fake tax, utility and employment information.
The United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, explained the term “Sham Marriage” in Bark v. INS (1975). In that case, the petitioner was in a relationship for several years with a woman while they both lived in Korea. The couple broke up and she immigrated to the U.S. and became a resident alien. The petitioner later entered the U.S. as a business visitor. While in the U.S., the couple reconnected and got married. The petitioner then sought to adjust status from student visitor to permanent resident; however, he was deemed ineligible as it was found that the marriage was a sham. He testified that he married for love and not to circumvent immigration laws. In rendering a decision, the Court explained that a marriage is a sham if the couple did not intent to establish a life together at the time they were married. The Court did not want to overstep and start evaluating the couple’s lifestyle, (i.e. how much time the couple spent together and why they separated) and the Court would only look at the parties conduct after the marriage if it spoke to the subjective state of mind at the time of marriage. The case was reversed and remanded.
The Immigration Marriage Fraud Amendment of 1986 was passed in an effort to deter immigration-related fraud and imposed severe penalties on those found to have entered into a sham marriage. A marriage fraud conviction or a conspiracy to commit marriage fraud conviction can carry a prison sentence of up to 5 years.