LOS ANGELES (AP) — An American man was told he could make $18,000 for marrying a Chinese woman who needed a green card, so he agreed to get hitched at a California wedding studio and then took an all-expenses-paid trip to Las Vegas where he posed in photos with his new wife.
But the man was gay and vacationing with his boyfriend, while the woman already had a husband. Until he revealed his sexual orientation to an immigration officer during a green card interview, both couples had been caught up in an elaborate marriage fraud scheme that has netted organizers $3.5 million since 2006, authorities say.
Federal authorities on Wednesday arrested Jason Shiao, a 65-year-old Southern California man they say posed as an attorney, and his 43-year-old daughter, Lynn Leung, on charges of conspiring to commit visa fraud by arranging phony marriages between Chinese citizens seeking legal residency and American spouses.
Authorities also charged Shannon Mendoza, 48, with recruiting Americans for the scheme. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were still searching for Mendoza on Wednesday afternoon.
Shiao and Leung's Pasadena-based business filed more than 70 fraudulent immigration petitions since October 2006, authorities said. It advertised in Chinese-language newspapers in California and charged Chinese citizens who came to the United States on tourist visas as much as $50,000 for the company's services, ICE officials said.
The business even paid some Americans to travel abroad and snap photos with clients to make the marriages look more authentic to immigration officers reviewing green card applications, authorities said.
Claude Arnold, special agent in charge of ICE's homeland security investigations in Los Angeles, said marriage fraud has been rampant for more than two decades but is frequently downplayed and even romanticized on television and in movies such as "Green Card."
"It is glamorized in Hollywood movies as you are helping someone out," Arnold said. "The people who are facilitating this — they're not in it to help someone out. They're not a charitable organization. They're just trying to line their pockets."
Shiao and Leung were ordered released on bond during a federal court hearing in Los Angeles Wednesday afternoon. If convicted, each faces up to five years in prison, the U.S. attorney's office said.
As green card holders themselves, the father and daughter also could face the prospect of deportation. Both are dual citizens of China and Australia, authorities said.
A message left for Shiao's lawyer, Pedro Castillo, was not returned. Leung's attorney, Errol Stambler, declined to immediately comment on the allegations.
Immigration officials said they learned of the scheme in 2012 after an anonymous caller contacted a tip line.
Investigators determined that Shiao had been posing as a lawyer, and he and Leung had been pairing up couples and snapping photos of them in bridal gear and on purported honeymoon trips in a bid to make their marriages seem legitimate to immigration officers, authorities said.
Most of the U.S. recruits were found by word of mouth, Arnold said. Many of the nearly two dozen Americans interviewed by ICE investigators said they never received the cash they were promised.
Sometimes the couples were successful and got green cards, and other times they were denied.
ICE did not have a tally for how many couples prevailed, but about half of the 70 fraudulent petitions — most of which were for marriages — filed by the business were approved, said Virginia Kice, an ICE spokeswoman.
In one instance, Shiao told a confidential informant who contacted the business known as Jason International Law Corp. that he would need to pay roughly $43,000 to get an arranged marriage and all the immigration paperwork completed, a homeland security investigator wrote in court filings.
The informant then asked what he should do once he obtained legal residency.
"Get a divorce! Over here at my place," the investigator reported Shiao saying before handing out a business card offering his services as an attorney.