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ORLANDO, Fla. -- A federal sting of four companies accused of arranging fraudulent marriages for U.S. citizenships, complete with wedding photos of brides in gowns and elaborate fake cakes, has netted more than 80 arrests, authorities said Friday.
Immigrants, Americans and company officials were among the 83 arrested. The immigrants paid as much as $10,000, while the U.S. citizens were offered up to $2,500, U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill said.
The couples were coached on how to pass immigration checks with fake answers, even though in some cases they didn't speak the same language as their purported spouse, officials said. U.S.
At least one of the businesses kept a standing wedding showroom in its office, complete with a prop cake, an assortment of 10 to 15 wedding dresses and table settings never dirtied with dinner or drink.
"What we've seen in the past generally is that a person will meet someone, that person might be desperate for some money, willingly engage in a sham marriage and then they go their own ways," O'Neill said. "Here, you can see this was much more sophisticated. They incorporated businesses, they obviously sought out people, people came in."
The four companies that allegedly arranged the marriages were incorporated as immigration assistance services.
Robert Weber, the agent in charge of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Tampa, characterized the fraudulent marriages as a threat to national security.
"(The Americans) did not know their motives, they did not know their intent, they didn't know where they were coming from _ in this case from 11 different nationalities," Weber said.
"They did it for financial gain; they were willing to put our national security and domestic public safety at risk."
Weber warned that ICE was stepping up enforcement of marriage fraud. The agency investigated more than 5,200 such cases in 2006 and the first half of 2007, up from about 2,300 in 2004.
"The bottom line: If you commit marriage fraud, whether as a United States citizen or one illegally in the country, you will become an ICE investigative target and be held accountable for such criminal activity," Weber said.
A total of 83 people were arrested, including the suspected business operators and couples. The operators were charged with establishing a commercial enterprise to evade immigration laws, punishable by up to five years in jail.
The couples, including the Americans, face charges of knowingly entering into a fraudulent marriage to evade immigration laws, also carrying a maximum five-year penalty.