For more than two decades, Maria Refugia Camarillo played matchmaker for her family members, which investigators dubbed Operation Phony Love.
Camarillo found spouses for her children, her nieces, a nephew and even her three teenage grandchildren, all of whom lived within two blocks of each other.
The marriages were not only arranged, they were also lucrative. Since 1980, Camarillo arranged some 170 matches between more than a dozen of her relatives and foreigners willing to pay cash to marry Americans and get green cards. With fees of up to $12,000 per marriage, the scheme garnered more than $1 million, authorities estimate.
Federal prosecutors describe it as one the largest green-card marriage scams in the country and say it was unique because it was a family enterprise. Authorities say the 72-year-old Camarillo and her family avoided detection through identity theft, document fraud and immigration system savvy.
Camarillo and fourteen of her relatives pleaded guilty to charges including conspiracy to commit fraud in connection with immigration documents, and fraud and misuse of visas, permits and other documents. They received sentences ranging from probation to nearly four years in prison.
But authorities aren’t done with their investigation. They are now trying to track down the scores of immigrants who used sham marriages to obtain permanent residency.