11 People Plead Guilty to Sham Marriage Schemes in Columbus

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11 people in Columbus recently pleaded guilty for their involvement in sham marriage schemes. The pleas are the result of an investigation by local and federal officials led by the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency. Prosecutors say foreign nationals paid thousands of dollars to wed Americans in hopes of longer stays and boosting citizenship chances in the United States.

Assistant U.S. attorney Dan Brown says an American who’s yet to be charged and an Estonian were running a marriage business in Columbus. That business helped eastern Europeans from the former Soviet bloc find American spouses.

“The man from Estonia would find people who wanted to remain in the United States and couldn’t seem to get it done legally,” Brown says. “And the American would find a potential spouse who was willing to accept money in order to engage in the sham marriage.”

The problem is that a sham marriage for the purpose of evading immigration laws is illegal. But the desire to stay in the United States was a driving force says Brown.

“One of these men who paid an American woman to get married was from Uzbekistan and he came here and he ended up quite frankly just loving America. And he just couldn’t bear the thought of going home.”

That man was 22-year-old Sobithon Mirzaev who came to Columbus from Louisiana to get married.

“He lived in New Orleans, and he was so enamored with America that he was a regular volunteer cleaning up the mess left by Katrina,” Brown says. “So there are very strong feelings with respect to some of these people. The Americans accepting the money; I think that’s really reprehensible.”

Terry Sherman is an attorney for another of the defendants from Uzbekistan. He says that his client, who he would not name, was told that if he got married it would enhance his ability to get a green card. That’s a permanent resident card.

“Somebody set him up with an American, and they entered into a sham marriage for the purpose of obtaining a green card,” Sherman says.

According to the federal government the sham marriages occurred shortly after the foreign national and the U.S. citizen met each other; sometimes they got married on the same day.

Brown says marriages typically cost between $14,000 and $20,000 though the money wasn’t paid in a lump sum. That’s because the alien was leery that the American would simply get an annulment or a divorce. So, says Brown:

“There were payments to get the marriage license, payments to get married and then monthly payments which would culminate essentially in a pretty good lump sum.”

The couple did appear before immigration authorities even though they had not lived together.

“When the interview with the immigration authorities occurred and the interview would be with both parties and they had to make it look like they were a married couple and knew a lot about each other when in fact they didn’t even live together. They had to rehearse what they were going to say,” Brown says.

Khaalid Walls is a spokesman for ICE: the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Walls says sham marriages can lead to other crimes.

“Marriage fraud schemes do two things,” Walls says. “First of all, they basically hamper our overall security efforts because more often than not fake documents are used to perpetuate these crimes. And then secondly, individuals who enter into sham marriages end up sort of jumping the line on a path to citizenship so these individuals are unfairly put on a path to citizenship by entering into these marriages.”

U.S. attorney Dan Brown would not say how authorities uncovered the marriage fraud ring, because he says, the investigation is on-going and more people are likely to be charged. But he does say that marriage fraud is a widespread problem in the U.S.

“These are happening all over the United States,” Brown says. “Columbus is apparently experiencing this kind of illegality no more or no less than any other city of comparable size.”