Green Card Scheme Recruited in Casinos

Officials Say Phony-Marriage Scheme Recruited in Casinos
Gamblers in debt were sought for fake nuptials with foreign nationals, U.S. agency alleges.

By Mai Tran
LA Times Staff Writer

Dec. 9, 2005

The organizers of a phony-marriage scheme that targeted Asians seeking U.S. citizenship went after people with large gambling debts in their quest to find men and women willing to fill the role of husband or wife, federal authorities said Friday.

Those involved, who allegedly targeted Southern California casinos, would offer to erase gambling debts in exchange for the debtors' willingness to marry Vietnamese and Chinese nationals, authorities said.

"They were able to find people who were on a losing streak who would be willing to do something illegal for the right price," said Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The Commerce Casino, Morongo Casino and Resort in Cabazon and the Bicycle Casino in Bell Gardens were recruiting hot spots, officials said.

After a three-year investigation, authorities this week arrested 11 of the 44 men and women from Orange and Los Angeles counties and the Bay Area suspected of operating or participating in the phony-marriage scheme.

Most of the others had already been charged.

On Friday, one of the suspected ring leaders, Marian Therese Thai, 53, of Westminster, turned herself in to authorities and made her first court appearance at U.S. District Court in Santa Ana.

She faces federal charges of conspiracy, fraud and misuse of visas, harboring aliens, marriage fraud, and aiding and abetting.

Thai did not turn herself in earlier because she was out of town on her honeymoon, officials said. She addressed the judge in Vietnamese through a court translator, and retained a private attorney.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Marc L. Goldman set bail at $25,000 and ordered Thai to surrender her U.S. passport.

Officials said the ring, dubbed Operation Newlywed Game, was unusually sophisticated. Leaders charged Chinese and Vietnamese nationals as much as $60,000 to marry American citizens to obtain green cards. Thai operated the ring mostly from her now-defunct MT Travel agency in Westminster, officials said. She produced fake wedding pictures, joint tax returns and love letters, officials said.

Authorities caught up with the scam after immigration agency employees discovered U.S. citizens who were petitioning for more than one spouse to receive green cards.

In one case, officials said, Thai arranged for Jasmine Loan Vo to marry three men from China between 2000 and 2002.

Officials said one recruiter, Alex Pham, after gathering a group of willing spouses in Houston, had them flown to China to pose for phony honeymoon photos.

After expenses, recruiters made as much as $50,000 for each marriage.

Authorities said some of the U.S. citizens were paid as much as $5,000 to marry foreign nationals. Some of those arrested worked as professional gamblers. Many lived flamboyant lifestyles, traveling often and driving luxury cars, and were heavily involved in identity theft and credit-card fraud to support their gambling habit, federal agents said. They also had connections to Asian gangs in Orange County, officials said.

For the foreign nationals, the scheme provided an opportunity to seek better lives. Relatives would contribute money to support one person who would enter the U.S. to work and gain citizenship, then sponsor other family members to follow.

They all could now be arrested and deported, officials said, while the convicted schemers could face jail sentences.