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Connecticut weddings identified among sham marriages for illegals

Brattleboro, Vt. - Town Clerk Annette Cappy, whose office issues hundreds of marriage licenses a year, began to notice in 2005 there was something decidedly unromantic about some of the couples seeking the licenses.

"They showed no signs of affection," Cappy recalled in a recent interview. "Often it was as if they didn't know each other." In some cases, she said, the couples didn't speak the same language.

In dozens of cases, Cappy's office issued licenses to Brazilians, who were in the United States illegally, to marry Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens. Their sham marriages entitled the Brazilian brides and grooms to Green Cards and then status as "lawful permanent residents."

Last February, Maria-Helena Knoller, a Brazilian-born Holyoke, Mass., resident, pleaded guilty to federal charges of marriage fraud, and concealing and shielding illegal immigrants. Knoller operated one of the country's largest criminal conspiracies aimed at gaining legal status for illegals by arranging sham marriages with U.S. citizens.

Knoller's wholesale marriage scam was no aberration, according to an investigation that uncovered government reports that suggest as many as 60,000 sham marriages a year escape government notice.

Among the findings by the Initiative for Investigative Reporting:

• U.S. government efforts to monitor such marriages are ineffectual, according to government auditors. Each year, about 200,000 immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally or on a temporary basis obtain Green Cards by marrying American citizens. By some official estimates, up to 30 percent of those marriages are fraudulent.

• The American citizens who are paid to make the scams possible rarely face any sanctions. In the Knoller case, none of the 32 American spouses was prosecuted, while all of the illegals face deportation.

• Brattleboro as a "destination wedding'' site may have been by design: The state's law does not require clerks to ask applicants for identification, and clerks seldom do. Massachusetts, and every other state bordering it, requires proof of identity.

• Cappy, the town clerk, notified federal authorities numerous times about the suspicious couples and their wedding planner. Yet it took three years for federal agents to bring a halt to Knoller's wedding bonanza.

Of the 32 marriages for which Knoller was prosecuted, 22 were legalized by the Brattleboro-issued licenses. But other marriage licenses were granted in Hartford and New Britain in Connecticut, and Chicopee, Amherst and Framingham in Massachusetts. In each case, the Brazilian illegals paid Knoller as much as $12,000. Typically, the American spouses received half the money.

Connecticut weddings

Four of the 32 weddings Knoller acknowledged in her plea took place in Connecticut.

The first, held Oct. 23, 2006, in New Britain, followed classic Knoller form: She paired a 26-year-old son of Puerto Rican parents with a 22-year-old Brazilian immigrant. The couple stated on their marriage application that they lived together in New Britain. They secured a marriage license at City Hall and were married there the same day by a justice of the peace.

Knoller then used Hartford City Hall as the site of three unions in a five-month period between October 2007 and March 2008. The first couple, a 43-year-old, Puerto Rican-born man and a 36-year-old Brazilian woman, were from Hartford, according to their marriage license. Knoller brought the two other pairs from outside the city, one couple traveling more than 100 miles from the home they said they shared in Revere, Mass. The same justice of the peace, Diane E. Williams of Hartford, performed all three ceremonies the same days that the licenses were issued.

As in Vermont, where Knoller took most of her couples to be married, a license in Connecticut can be granted immediately on applying for it. In Massachusetts, Knoller's home state, there is a three-day waiting period. Connecticut applicants do have to furnish photo IDs and Social Security cards or passports, which are not required in Vermont.

Knoller, 59, pleaded guilty to arranging 32 fraudulent marriages, although the actual number was likely much higher. Federal investigators found evidence in a raid on Knoller's home that the number might be more than twice that. And federal agents found evidence she had more in the planning stages: Their search turned up 61 gold wedding bands.

Knoller's was a full-service enterprise. After the illegal immigrants obtained legal status, she helped facilitate divorces for many of them.

After the marriages, all of the illegals obtained "work permits" that allowed them to claim legal residency in the United States once they had filed the necessary paperwork with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Three months later, after an interview with an Immigration Services agent in either Boston or Lawrence, Mass., they were granted provisional Green Cards. Those provisional cards allowed them to travel back and forth to Brazil unchallenged. And after two years of marriage, they were granted permanent Green Cards.

After that, Knoller offered her clients help in legally dissolving the marriages, once the sham was no longer needed. Divorce actions for half the 32 marriages have been filed or granted in Massachusetts alone, according to records made available by the Massachusetts Family and Probate Court.

The sought-after Green Cards became worthless after Knoller's scheme was uncovered. All of the illegal spouses received visits from federal agents telling them they face deportation, according to immigration lawyers representing the targets.

Lack of resources blamed

The Knoller case, according to interviews by reporters for the Initiative, has underscored many of the inefficiencies and inequities in the government program that grants Green Cards and permanent residency to immigrants who marry Americans.

According to government auditors, the program is so hobbled by a lack of resources and firm standards that the federal government is left ill-equipped to identify fraudulent marriages.

Although federal law allows for prosecution and five-year prison sentences for U.S. citizens who engage in fraudulent marriages, none of the Knoller-arranged spouses face any legal consequences.

People like Knoller tell the American citizens, " 'You probably won't get caught, and if you do, all that's going to happen is they'll sort of wag their finger at you,' " said Dan Lane, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) investigator who in July broke up a large fraud ring involving 39 sham marriages in Sacramento, Calif. "Unfortunately, in some jurisdictions that's the case."

Federal officials have defended the decision not to prosecute Americans in such cases, saying they do not have the resources to do so.

The U.S. citizens do not always go unpunished, however. In one recent case, in Maine, federal prosecutors targeted the complicit U.S. citizens, as well as the illegal immigrants.

A principal reason for the poor oversight is a lack of money. While the Department of Homeland Security spent $6.3 billion on border security in fiscal year 2011, it devoted only $39.2 million to fighting immigration fraud of all varieties.

In Knoller's case, that lack of resources helps explain why her flagrant scam went on for so long.

Ties to Brazilian community

Knoller came to the United States in 1990 and appears to have been here legally, since both her first and second husbands were in the U.S. legally, and she gained lawful residency status through them.

About a decade ago, Knoller, who has a college degree in Brazil, went to work for Springfield lawyer Kevin R. Murphy, whose practice includes immigration law.

Last week, Murphy said Knoller worked for him before 2005, the year she started arranging marriages, and he denied that any of the Brazilians cited in her 2011 guilty plea had met her while he employed her.

Knoller, who is free on bail and working at a doughnut shop, declined comment when approached recently. Her defense counsel said she would have no comment at least until after her sentencing in January.

Herbert Knoller, her former husband, said in an interview that his ex-wife decided in 2004 or 2005 to start arranging marriages, thanks to the expertise she gained in Murphy's office.

Her ties in the Brazilian community served her well in finding clients, for the most part men and women who had come to the United States years ago on tourist visas and remained illegally.

They were willing to pay the money and break the law to gain legal status.

"I can tell you the people who come here are very vulnerable and very naïve," said Natalicia Tracy, executive director of the Brazilian Immigrant Center in Boston. "If you tell them, 'This is something you can do to stay,' they're going to do it because even working 60, 80 hours a week here is better than what they came from in Brazil."

To all the prospective American spouses, according to interviews and documents made public by the U.S. attorney's office, the pitch was the same: Knoller would fill out the paperwork and provide a translator to help answer all questions. All they had to do was show up for the license application, the marriage ceremony and then, a few months later, tell an immigration interviewer a story of love and marriage.

In exchange, the American conspirators received half their payments, usually $3,000, when the marriage license was granted and the second half, another $3,000, when the provisional Green Card was issued. And she assured the Americans they did not have to live with the spouses and that, after two years of bliss-less marriage, Knoller could facilitate their divorce filings.

The business also brought Knoller financial success. In 2006, a year after she began her operation, Knoller and her second husband put down $57,000 in cash to buy a single-family home in Holyoke; and they own two rental properties in Chicopee. When federal agents raided her home in 2008, they seized more than $117,000 in cash.

One-stop shopping

Cappy, the Brattleboro clerk, alerted the USCIS in September 2005.

In her letter, Cappy wrote that while her office was accustomed to issuing marriage licenses to couples from out of state or even foreign countries, "the recent rush of Brazilians eager to be married in Vermont seems to be quite an extraordinary coincidence and has caught our attention."

In addition, Cappy wrote that a woman named "Maria" often accompanied the couples, acting as their translator and guide in gaining the marriage licenses. She also included copies of the dozen permits she had issued.

Over the next three years, Cappy sent several more letters to the USCIS office, keeping the immigration office updated on Knoller's continued stream of visits to the office.

Knoller faces up to 10 years in prison as well as forfeiture of her Holyoke home and the two rental properties - and deportation back to Brazil.

At Knoller's guilty plea in February, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin O'Regan told U.S. District Judge Michael A. Ponsor that, in addition to the cash and stash of wedding bands, federal agents also found a ledger that appeared to list more than 70 couples and the details of their nuptials.

"Ms. Knoller would instruct them what to wear, how to act - and arrange for wedding photos to be taken" that they could then present to immigration officials. "This really was one-stop shopping for fraudulent marriages," O'Regan said.

Rachel Zarrell and Gal Tziperman Lotan, also of the Initiative for Investigative Reporting, contributed to this report.

About this article

This article was prepared by the Initiative for Investigative Reporting in the School of Journalism at Northeastern University in Boston. The Initiative is supported by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Initiative's website is www.northeastern.edu/watchdognewengland.

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