On the crowded streets of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, advertisements selling U.S. marriage visas are as common as ads for produce at grocery stores, according to federal agents.
On Tuesday, federal immigration agents announced the breakup of what they call Utah's largest marriage visa fraud ring ever. As the result of an 18-month investigation called "Operation Morning Glory," 24 people, mostly naturalized Vietnamese residents living in Utah, were indicted on 79 counts of conspiracy, alien smuggling, marriage fraud and aggravated identity theft.
U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman said the cooperative investigation between his office, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service and others netted an operation in which single Utah residents were recruited and paid between $50 to as much as $10,000 to marry Vietnamese citizens for the purpose of gaining U.S. citizenship for them. Tolman said people in Vietnam were willing to pay as much as $30,000 for the fraudulent marriages.
"The scheme alleged in this indictment takes the concept of 'arranged marriage' to a new level," Tolman said. "Those charged in this indictment exploited a process intended to assist families. Their subversion was motivated by greed."
Hoa Thanh Vo, 40, West Valley City
Henry Ngoc Nguyen, 45, West Jordan
Buu Van Troung, West Jordan
Ngoc Hoa Huynh, 33, West Jordan
Federal officials said the investigation, which also expanded overseas to Vietnam, found the ring allegedly paid Utahns to travel to Vietnam, where they would take part in an "engagement ceremony" with the paying customer.
The couple would then change clothes several times in a day and be photographed at various locations to show U.S. immigration officials that they had been in a long-term romantic relationship. Couples typically have to be married for more than two years and be subjected to individual interviews by immigration officials before a foreign national can qualify for citizenship.
Mario Ortiz, the Denver district director for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, said the group's operation cheapens the laws intended to keep true married couples united.
The 259,144 immigration visas obtained through marriage in fiscal year 2005 accounted for nearly a quarter of the green cards, according to CIS data.
Ortiz said the investigation began in 2004 due to a citizen tip that was called in to the offices of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. The operation is believed to have been running since 2001.
Tolman said this particular operation was centered in Utah and that similar operations have been uncovered in other cities, including Seattle and Los Angeles.
The Utah group seemed to target Utahns who were willing to do it for the money, while others were lured by the humanitarian effort in offering someone a better life. Ortiz said some Vietnamese customers risked ending up enslaved in prostitution or other abusive relationships, while U.S. citizens opened themselves to financial fraud.
Tom Huynh, outgoing director of the Vietnamese Community of Utah, said those charged in the fraud ring account for a very small number of the state's 4,121 foreign born Vietnamese residents.
"It's pretty isolated," he said. "Most Vietnamese are refugees or political asylees."
The investigation is ongoing and the number of fraudulent engagements and marriages is not yet known, officials said.
Tolman said several Utah residents have been identified as having taken part in the scheme but his office has not yet decided if they will be charged. Those who immigrated through the fraudulent marriages will likely face deportation proceedings, officials said.
If convicted, the ring members face up to 10 years for alien smuggling and visa fraud charges, five years for marriage fraud and a two-year minimum mandatory consecutive term for identity theft.