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Thursday, February 29, 2024
Feb. 29, 2024

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How an LA marriage fraud scheme helped over 300 people obtain green cards

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It was a midsummer day in 2021 when Engilbert Ulan met with a newlywed couple in Los Angeles to help them prepare for questions they expected to face from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The husband, a 53-year-old foreign national, had begun the process of applying for a green card and needed to pass an interview scheduled for a few days later. He and his wife, a U.S. citizen, would have to prove their marriage was legitimate.

Ulan moved them through the list of 211 possible questions that his boss, Marcialito “Mars” Biol Benitez, had provided.

“What is the color of your spouse’s toothbrush?” Ulan asked. “Who sleeps on the right side of the bed?”

But according to federal prosecutors, Ulan knew the couple’s marriage was bogus. By then, authorities say, he had already met with hundreds of Benitez’s clients, who were recruited by brokers in a prolific marriage fraud scheme. The clients, many of whom were Brazilian nationals, paid up to $30,000 in cash for Benitez’s services.

Ulan, 42, was convicted last week by a federal jury in Boston of conspiracy to commit marriage fraud and immigration document fraud. He now faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The 49-year-old Benitez, who pleaded guilty in August to orchestrating the marriage fraud enterprise, testified against his former employee and could ultimately receive a shorter sentence than Ulan.

Ulan’s attorney, Joseph Simons, called Benitez “the architect of the arranged marriage business,” and said his client, a Philippine national who resided in Pasadena, only played a small part in the operation.

“The evidence as I saw it painted Mr. Ulan as a hardworking man who came to the United States looking for a better life, and who took the opportunity to help support his family back in the Philippines,” Simons said. “Unfortunately for Mr. Ulan, he trusted his then-boss, and perhaps unwittingly ended up taking a minor role in his fraudulent immigration scheme.”

Ulan was the 10th person to be convicted in the case, with nine other co-defendants pleading guilty. His sentencing is scheduled for March.

Jodi Cohen, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston division, said in a statement that Ulan’s conviction should “serve as a warning” to others who commit marriage fraud.

“It is the utmost honor and privilege to become an American citizen, but Engilbert Ulan made an absolute sham of that process,” Cohen said. “Mr. Ulan and his co-conspirators broke immigration laws that are in place to protect public safety and created an unfair disadvantage for those seeking to earn their citizenship lawfully.”

Authorities said that Ulan’s former boss, Benitez, operated his marriage fraud “agency,” between October 2016 and March 2022. Benitez, a Filipino national who resided in Los Angeles, called his company Career Ad Management LLC.

The business operated from offices at 3325 Wilshire Blvd., prosecutors said, and arranged more than 300 “sham marriages” to help clients obtain green cards.

Court records show Benitez, Ulan, and others involved in the conspiracy had a blueprint for faking their clients’ marriages. Benitez used “brokers” to recruit U.S. citizens to serve as spouses for foreigners seeking lawful permanent residence status, while Ulan and others helped identify foreign nationals through “referrals from previous clients and by word of mouth.”

Ulan assisted with introductory meetings that explained the scheme to the clients, and would would also introduce the prospective couples to each other, federal prosecutors said.

The clients received payment schedules from Benitez that explained both the upfront costs and monthly payments that were expected to follow. The former covered the client’s wedding ceremony and the filing of immigration documents, while the latter aimed to keep the fake “spouse” reachable and cooperative until the client obtained their green card.

Benitez’s employees would take the fake spouses to clothing stores to “select suitable outfits for wedding ceremonies,” prosecutors said, and Ulan assisted with booking the couples’ marriage ceremony appointments.

The ceremonies were held at wedding chapels that did not check whether the marriages were legitimate, prosecutors said, and Ulan frequently used one where he had an associate who was a part-time employee. Ulan and others decorated the chapels with “prop wedding decorations,” taking photographs to document the ceremonies.

Ulan would help prepare fraudulent petitions and supporting documentation on the clients’ behalf, then submit the paperwork for processing. Clients were advised to open joint bank accounts, register vehicles, purchase life insurance policies and file taxes jointly with their fake spouses, federal prosecutors said.

Clients who lived outside of California and needed to show residency in the state paid Ulan and others to use their physical addresses and mailboxes. One client, a foreign national residing in Massachusetts, paid $100 to Ulan monthly for using his address on immigration and other official documents, federal prosecutors said.

“Everything should be addressed in the address where you both live, which is my address,” Ulan told the client, according to court records.

Ulan also ensured “couples/spouses [showed] GOOD CHEMISTRY during the interview,” by instructing them to provide consistent answers to questions posed by immigration authorities, prosecutors said in his indictment.

The couples were coached to conceal the fraudulent nature of the marriages, court records show, with Ulan finishing up the practice interviews with questions that authorities might use to trick them, such as “How much did you pay for your spouse in this marriage?”

The U.S. citizens hired to pose as Benitez’s clients’ spouses received relatively small sums compared to Benitez, Ulan, and their co-conspirators. In one case described in court records, Benitez pocketed $15,000 in cash and paid the woman who was being married off $1,700.

The bride in that case later signed a sworn affidavit admitting to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services that her marriage was fraudulent. When Benitez learned about the betrayal, court records show, he sent a message ordering his client to withhold further payments: “Don’t give any single cent.”

“I told the broker about the mess she did,” Benitez wrote, according to his indictment. “Don’t pay anything … she messed up everything.”

Benitez had presented the woman to his client as a manager at a factory who made $30 an hour, according to court records. The client was also told that his spouse was single and childless, and Benitez sent a message telling his employee to “dress her elegantly so we close the deal.”

The woman later apologized to the client and told him, she and her son were “homeless and living in a motel,” federal prosecutors said. When the client confronted Benitez, he told one of his brokers to “fix” the situation as quickly as possible.

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“She been destroying the business,” Benitez wrote. “Now everybody in the filipino community will know that we pick up homeless people.”

In April 2022, FBI agents came to arrest Benitez at his home, according to court records, and found four adults and a child who claimed they didn’t know his whereabouts. The agents discovered Benitez about 45 minutes later, hiding in the attic, “lying face down in insulation.”

Benitez’s agency is believed to have generated at least $8 million in proceeds, authorities said. Benitez obtained his own U.S. citizenship through marriage, court records show. In his testimony against Ulan, Benitez alleged that Ulan’s marriage was also a sham.

Asked whether the clients who benefitted from the scheme could now lose their permanent resident status, a spokesperson for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said the Justice Department is investigating.

A sentencing hearing for Benitez is scheduled for January. His plea agreement shows prosecutors have recommended a sentence of three and a half years.

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