Texas granny led big green-card marriage scam

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by Associated Press

khou.com

Posted on December 31, 2009 at 1:49 PM

FORT WORTH, Texas -- For more than two decades, Maria Refugia Camarillo played matchmaker for her family members.

Camarillo, known as Cuca, found spouses for her children, her nieces, a nephew and even her three teenage grandchildren, all of whom lived within two blocks of each other.

The marriages were not only arranged, they were also lucrative. Since 1980, Camarillo arranged some 170 matches between more than a dozen of her relatives and foreigners willing to pay cash to marry Americans and get green cards. With fees of up to $12,000 per marriage, the scheme garnered more than $1 million, authorities estimate.

Federal prosecutors describe it as one the largest green-card marriage scams in the country and say it was unique because it was a family enterprise. Authorities say the 72-year-old Camarillo and her family avoided detection through identity theft, document fraud and immigration system savvy.

Camarillo and fourteen of her relatives pleaded guilty to charges including conspiracy to commit fraud in connection with immigration documents, and fraud and misuse of visas, permits and other documents. They received sentences ranging from probation to nearly four years in prison.

But authorities aren’t done with their investigation. They are now trying to track down the scores of immigrants who used sham marriages to obtain permanent residency.

Neither Camarillo nor her attorney would discuss the case, which investigators dubbed Operation Phony Love.

Court documents say Camarillo would meet prospective customers in an office behind her home. The future bride or groom would pay half of an arranged fee up front to marry one of Camarillo’s relatives.

Authorities say Camarillo enlisted her four children, her sister’s children and a grandniece. At least five grandchildren, including three who entered into their first green-card marriages at age 17, were recruited into the operation. Eventually, a grandson’s wife also took part.

"You had a situation where it was hard for the children to say no to their own mother," said Charles Bleil, the public defender who represented Camarillo’s daughter Olga Hernandez.

Most of the customers were from Brazil or Mexico. Camarillo made sure the couple’s age difference was no more than just a few years, authorities said.

"She did a good job of matching people," said Tom Hanvey, a supervisory immigration officer with the Office of Fraud Detection and National Security at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. "That’s why you have three generations involved."

The bride and groom typically would meet for the first time when they applied for a marriage license. A justice of the peace usually performed the ceremony. Most of the marriages happened in Texas, but some occurred in Georgia and Washington.

The marriages were sporadic some years; other times Camarillo’s relatives juggled a handful at once.

To cover up the scam, some obtained driver’s licenses under aliases before marrying. Camarillo and others prepared fake divorce decrees, tax returns, birth certificates and Social Security numbers cards.

The documents helped fool immigration officials, who didn’t necessarily verify that they were legitimate, Bleil said.

The scam began to unravel after an informant told U.S.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement about Camarillo in July 2004.

When Olga Hernandez and her husband went to the Citizenship and Immigration Services office in 2005 for an interview, the couple were placed in separate rooms. Discrepancies surfaced during questioning, and eventually Hernandez broke. She told officers she’d just been just trying to help a friend and withdrew the petition for a green card.

The following year, Hernandez returned to the same immigration office with a different name and a different man. The agency has some 50 adjudicators spread among various Dallas buildings, but Hernandez and her new husband happened to be interviewed with the same officer who’d seen her the previous year.

"That’s one of the odds they were playing," Hanvey said.

Immigration officials also became suspicious of Camarillo’s

other daughter, Mary Lou Hernandez, in 2005.

"She was recognized by an officer after coming in recently with a different guy," said Greg Harris, another supervisory immigration officer at the Office of Fraud Detection and National Security.

During the investigation, ICE agents asked the informant to speak with Olga Hernandez. She eventually led the informant to Camarillo, who detailed the marriage scheme during a recorded conversation in September 2007.

The recording allowed authorities to get a search warrant for Camarillo’s home. There, authorities discovered stacks of IDs, blank tax returns and a divorce decree that was used as a template when one of the parties needed to prove they were no longer married. They also found logs and copies of receipts Camarillo had given her customers.

As part of her plea deal, Camarillo admitted that relatives participating in the scheme usually received about $2,000. There also was a $200 referral fee paid to anyone who sent a prospective customer. Although Camarillo kept most of the money, it’s unclear what she did with it.

She and the family lived in a scruffy neighborhood of clapboard homes with bars on the windows and older cars parked nearby. Many of the defendants were represented by public defenders.

"We found no assets," prosecutor Charles Brown said. "We do not know where the money went."

By the time the family was arrested last year, Camarillo’s granddaughters Diana and Laura De Leon had been married nearly two dozen times each, said Amy Mitchell, another prosecutor in the case.

At her sentencing in September, the gray-haired Camarillo was aided by a walker. Her attorney told the judge she suffered a stroke, has a pacemaker and suffers from multiple health problems. He sought home confinement for her, saying a prison term longer than three years would be like a life sentence.

The judge sentenced Camarillo to three years and eight months in federal prison. She and Olga Hernandez, 54, are serving their sentences at the Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth, a prison for women who need medical and mental health care.

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