A Philippine national living in Los Angeles pleaded guilty Wednesday to running a large-scale marriage fraud scheme that arranged hundreds of sham marriages used to circumvent immigration laws.
Marcialito Biol "Mars" Benitez, 49, entered his plea in Boston federal court to conspiracy to commit marriage fraud and immigration document fraud. U.S. District Court Judge Denise Casper scheduled sentencing for Jan. 10.
Benitez was arrested and charged in April 2022 along with 10 other Southern California residents. He is the seventh defendant to plead guilty in the case.
The business 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 $30,000 in cash, according to prosecutors.
Benitez operated the agency out of offices on Wilshire Boulevard, where he allegedly employed co-conspirators as staff.
Specifically, some defendants assisted with arranging marriages as well as submitting fraudulent marriage and immigration documents for the agency's clients, including false tax returns. Other defendants served as "brokers," who recruited U.S. citizens willing to marry the agency's clients in exchange for a fee and monthly payments from the client spouses following the marriage, federal prosecutors said.
According to his plea agreement, after pairing foreign national clients with citizen spouses, Benitez and his staff staged fake wedding ceremonies at chapels, parks and other locations, performed by hired online officiants. 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 and his co-conspirators would also 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, prosecutors said.
Benitez's agency arranged sham marriages and submitted fraudulent immigration documents for at least 600 clients between October 2016 and March 2022.
The charge of conspiracy to commit marriage fraud provides for a sentence of up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000, prosecutors noted.
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