The women were paid between $1,000 and $6,000 to marry strangers, mostly of Pakistani descent, U.S. Attorney Strom Thurmond Jr. said. They were among 107 couples charged this week with sham marriages in a federal probe called Operation Broken Vows, he said.
In light of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the FBI is investigating the grooms to determine whether the men are linked to terrorism, Thurmond said.
Authorities have arrested 106 of the 107 women who police say agreed to the marriages. Most of them were single mothers looking for a way to make ends meet, defense attorneys said.
Nineteen men from Washington, D.C., and seven other states were in custody, prosecutor Scott Schools said.
Most marriages took place in South Carolina, where there is only a 24-hour wait for a marriage license and no blood tests are required, authorities said. Couples would meet at the courthouse, get married in front of a probate judge, then leave in separate cars, never to see each other again, prosecutors said.
The scheme started with a few women in early 2001, Schools said. Investigators learned of the marriages six months ago when one of the women, facing charges in an unrelated case, came forward.
The defendants are charged with participating in a scheme to engage in fraudulent marriages with the intent to evade immigration laws.
The charge carries a maximum five-year sentence and $250,000 fine, but prosecutors dropped most charges against the women who entered pleas to misdemeanors. Most of the women received six months of probation.
By Jeffrey Collins