Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Sham Marriage Scheme Busted in Vermont

Many sham marriages - fraudulent marriages which often lead to residency and ultimately citizenship benefits for immigrants - go undetected each year by the United States government.   But sometimes sham marriage immigration schemes are uncovered, as in this recent example from Vermont, as reported in the Boston Globe, A Marriage of a Dream and a Scheme, in which case illegal immigrants (mostly, if not all, from Brazil) paid Americans to marry them to get legal residency status.  According to the article, Maria-Helena Knoller, a Holyoke woman and  Brazilian immigrant responsible for the scheme, was recently prosecuted and convicted for marriage fraud and concealing and shielding illegal immigrants in the case of 32 sham marriages, and is now out free on a $100,000 bond and working in a Chicopee Donut shop while awaiting sentencing.  22 of those 32 sham marriages occurred in Brattleboro, Vermont, and half of these 32 sham marriages have already ended in divorce here in Massachusetts.   Apparently, the scheme seemed to begin and end in Massachusetts, although many of these participants were led across the Vermont border to Brattleboro for their nuptials. (There were seven other additional sham marriages revealed, but Knoller was not prosecuted for those.)

Knoller, it turned out, was a matchmaker of a special kind. For fees as high as $12,000, she would pair illegal immigrants from Brazil with Americans, arrange their marriages - and, in some cases, their subsequent divorces - after they received status as “lawful permanent residents’’ of the United States.
She pleaded guilty in February to federal charges of marriage fraud and concealing and shielding illegal immigrants for 32 of those marriages. But her prosecution is an exception, and Knoller’s case is a vivid example of how easy it is for illegal immigrants to dodge US immigration laws by getting married.
The US government estimates that of the 200,000 marriages that result in temporary or illegal immigrants receiving green cards each year, up to 30 percent are shams. And yet, while billions of federal dollars are devoted to protecting borders, enforcement efforts aimed at immigration fraud are hobbled by sparse budgets and understaffed agencies that, according to government auditors, allow an estimated 60,000 sham marriages a year to evade detection.
“The process of weeding out the fraudulent [marriages] - those arranged solely to obtain … a work permit and green card - is nearly impossible,’’ said David Seminara, a former US consular officer who wrote a 2008 study that faulted the process of identifying fraud in immigration petitions filed domestically and overseas. “Even when documentation is asked for, to show that the couple is living together, it’s easily doctored. There’s just too many applications and too few immigration officers handling these cases.’’
Taking her clients to Vermont for their nuptials made Knoller’s scam easier. Vermont does not require waiting periods or proof of identity to obtain a marriage license. While some of the 32 marriages for which Knoller was prosecuted were licensed in Connecticut and Massachusetts, 22 occurred in Brattleboro. Massachusetts, and every other state bordering Vermont, requires proof of identity.
For information about Massachusetts divorce and family law, see the divorce and family law page of my law firm website.

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