Federal prosecutors say there was nothing holy about a series of matrimonies after they say they busted a "large-scale marriage fraud agency."
Authorities say 11 suspects were indicted Thursday on charges of conspiracy to commit marriage fraud and immigration document fraud.
"These weddings were not love stories, this isn't the movie 'The Proposal' with Sandra Bullock or Ryan Reynolds," U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins said Thursday.
According to the indictment, more than 400 non-U.S. citizens paid between $20,000 and $30,000 in cash for the "sham marriages."
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"The facilitators of this fraud … going to great lengths to stage fake wedding ceremonies at chapels, parks and other locations, where they hire online officiants to perform ceremonies and take photographic proof," FBI Boston Special Agent in Charge Joseph Bonavolonta said.
According to the FBI, at least two of those who paid for these weddings are from the Boston area.
"Some clients of this agency were Massachusetts residents who traveled to California seeking these individuals' help in obtaining fraudulent citizenship," Bonavolonta said.
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Federal prosecutors say the agency also worked with those who paid so they would know how to answer questions with the goal of tricking immigration officials.
"They would even coach their citizen spouses, some of whom were homeless, how to interview immigration officials and convince them their marriage was legitimate," Bonavolonta said.
Federal prosecutors estimate the agency made around $8 million from at least 400 clients from October 2015 through last month.
"Marriage fraud is a serious crime that threatens the very integrity of our nation's immigration system," Rollins said. "These defendants' alleged exploitation of our immigration system for profit and gain is an affront to our nation's tradition of welcoming immigrants and prospective citizens."
FBI officials say eight of the defendants were arrested Thursday in Los Angeles. Officials are still searching for another two and believe the final defendant is currently in the Philippines.
"We believe all of them lied, cheated and tried to conceal the fact they were running a large-scale marriage fraud agency that arranged hundreds of phony marriages for foreign nationals," Bonavolonta said.
Boston-based immigration attorney Julio Henriquez argues clients can be tempted to break the law and risk deportation because of the limits in the immigration system.
“A lot of people simply have been in this country for many years, and they don’t have a way to fix their situation and out of desperation they chose this route, which is definitely not the right way to go,” said Henriquez.
Eight defendants made their first court appearances in Los Angeles on Thursday and will be brought to Boston to face charges at a later date, according to federal officials.