News 13 Investigates: Search continues for 4 immigrants in suspected marriage fraud case
ASHEVILLE, N.C. (WLOS) —
Authorities arrest an eighth person and the search continues for four immigrants facing charges in a suspected marriage fraud conspiracy in the mountains.
A federal indictment claims the four immigrants paid thousands for a fake marriage to get permanent U.S. citizenship.
The eighth person arrested was Jordan Littlejohn, who was taken into custody on Wednesday.
Homeland Security says fraudulent marriages for immigration's sake are a threat to national security.
According to the U.S. Attorney's Office the scheme might be a means to citizenship for those who don't qualify for the traditional way, because of a conviction, for example. But getting a temporary citizenship designation also means they face less scrutiny when crossing the U.S. border.
“Were these fraudulent marriages?” News 13 questioned the defendants in the case as they left federal court. “No comment,” was the reply.
Marriage fraud isn't new.
“In these instances it would be pretty clear, that this wasn't an actual marriage, that this was someone abusing our immigration laws,” said U.S. Attorney for the Western District Jill Westmoreland Rose.
Last week, in Jackson and Swain counties, both the immigrants and people who married them landed at the center of a federal investigation.
The couples were married across the state line, so News 13 went to Sevier County, Tennessee, where wedding chapels are plentiful, to pull the marriage licenses for Ilya Dostanov and Jessica Gonzalez, Ievgenii Reint and Kaila Cucumber, Shaul Levy and Jordan Littlejohn, and Kevin Swayney and Yana Peltz.
All four 2015 marriages are signed by the same officiant.
Records show that two couples were married on the same day in June, the others filed a month later in July a day apart, and all but one used a Cherokee address.
All the non-U.S. citizens would have needed to show to get a marriage license was a valid passport.
Immigration attorney George Pappas explains the clock for permanent citizenship started ticking as soon as they got the wedding certificate.
“If you're married for less than two years, your permanent residency or your Green Card will be valid for only up to two years. It's known as a conditional residency,” said Pappas.
Charges of marriage fraud were filed at or approaching the two-year mark for these couples, just as limitations would have been removed.
“You have to come back within two years and remove that condition and convince immigration that this marriage was bona fide, it was entered for the real deal, love,” said Pappas.
News 13 could find little proof any of the immigrants were living in the mountains. The U.S. Attorney's office records show they've lived in Panama City, Florida; St. Simons Island, Georgia; Norfolk, Virginia; and Israel.
News 13 did find records indicating a man named Ilya Dostanov filed paperwork in Panama City, Florida, a month after Gonzalez married a man by the same name, for the purpose of opening a new trucking business.
Records base the business at a residence in Panama City.
News 13 also discovered Ievgenii Reint was charged with speeding and not having a driver's license in December 2015 and January 2016 in Glynn County, Georgia. He gave officials a Glynn County address, not the Cherokee address he'd used six months before on his marriage license to Kayla Cucumber.
“There are a whole host of reasons why someone wants to get the citizenship this way, and it gives them an extra layer of protection because they already have one person vouching for them,” said Westmoreland Rose.
In 2016, Homeland Security made 650 criminal arrests for benefits fraud at federal courthouses nationwide.
As the federal government continues to investigate the money they claim was exchanged in these cases, there's a lot at stake for those seeking citizenship. If the marriages are determined fraudulent, their citizenship could be revoked.
“If there's a problem with that defense or that argument, you will lose the legal permanent residency and be placed in removal proceedings,” said Pappas.
News 13 reached out to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement concerning the citizenship status for the four, but Customs and Immigration considers it personal information, and won't release their status. Neither will the US Attorney's office.
The seven U.S. citizens already arrested are back before a federal judge Friday for a detention hearing.
Also charged in the indictment are Ruth McCoy, of Cherokee, who according to the indictment, along with Ofir Marsiano, and Golan Perez arranged the sham marriages by connecting the U.S. citizens with the non-citizens. The non-US citizens paid between $1,500 and $3,000 in exchange for the service.
The indictment also claims McCoy and her husband Timothy Taylor acted as sponsors for the non-citizens’ applications for adjustments to their immigration status in exchange for additional money.
The marriage fraud charges each carry a maximum penalty of five years per count.
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