10 indicted in Chicago sham marriage conspiracy

CHICAGO - An immigration attorney and five current and former Cook County Traffic Court employees were among those charged on Monday for allegedly arranging sham marriages to evade U.S. immigration laws. The charges resulted from an investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

A federal grand jury returned a 14-count indictment last week that was unsealed Nov. 23 after ICE agents arrested five of the defendants. Among the 10 individuals charged are a Chicago immigration attorney and five current or former Cook County Traffic Court employees. However, the charges do not allege that their employment played any role in the alleged fraud scheme.

According to the indictment, Maria F. Cruz and others recruited U.S. citizens and foreign nationals, primarily Filipinos, who entered into at least 15 sham marriages to evade immigration laws. The foreign nationals paid Cruz about $3,000 each to arrange for them to marry U.S. citizens. Cruz allegedly promised U.S. citizens that in return for marrying a foreign national they would receive about $3,000 after the marriage and about $350 a month until the foreign national obtained U.S. citizenship.

Foreign nationals who marry U.S. citizens can become U.S. permanent residents - and ultimately obtain U.S. citizenship - but not if the marriage is identified as a sham solely to evade immigration laws.

Cruz, 49, formerly of Chicago and currently living in American Canyon, Calif., was arrested on an initial complaint in late August; she was released on a $200,000 secured bond. She was a Cook County Traffic Court employee until this past summer when she moved to California.

In addition to the 15 allegedly fraudulent marriages detailed in the indictment, Cruz allegedly attempted to arrange two additional marriages between individuals and ICE agents during an undercover portion of the investigation.

Among the five people arrested Monday was Manny Aguja, 53, of Chicago, an immigration attorney with an office at 3144 W. Montrose Ave. Also arrested were two of Aguja's employees: his twin brother, Marc Aguja, 53; and Celeste Ligutan-Lopez, 36, both of Chicago.

According to the indictment, between July 2003 and October 2009 Cruz allegedly paid fees to individuals who referred U.S. citizens to her who were willing to enter into fraudulent marriages. Cruz then drove them to weddings and took photos before and after, knowing that they would be used to make it appear that the sham marriages were legitimate. She also advised the participants of steps they needed to take to make their marriages appear legitimate.

Cruz allegedly referred sham marriage participants to Manny Aguja's law office to prepare paperwork in support of the conspiracy. In addition to preparing allegedly fraudulent immigration papers, the Aguja brothers and Ligutan-Lopez met with participants and coached them on how to make the marriages appear legitimate. The indictment also seeks forfeiture of Manny Aguja's law office.

Also arrested Monday were Keisha McGary, 33; and Eugene Wilson, 30, both Cook County employees residing in Chicago. The Aguja brothers, Ligutan-Lopez, McGary and Wilson are scheduled to appear at 1:30 p.m. Monday before U.S. District Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan, Northern District of Illinois.

Cruz and the remaining four defendants will be ordered to appear for arraignment at a later date. They include Maria Cyd Adriatico-Fernandez, 53, of Oakbrook, and the following three Cook County Traffic Court employees: Sonia Maki, 43; DeShawn Barksdale, 39; and Eugene Wilson's sister, Latrice Wilson, 37, all of Chicago.

Each defendant was charged with conspiracy to commit marriage fraud. Some defendants were charged with additional counts of marriage or immigration fraud, including Cruz who faces 10 counts of marriage fraud. The Aguja brothers were also charged with conspiracy to induce foreign nationals to reside illegally in the United States.

"ICE will not tolerate those who engage in sham marriages to circumvent and exploit our nation's immigration system," said ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton. "Marriage fraud poses a significant vulnerability that must not go unchallenged. ICE aggressively investigates those who take illegal shortcuts to citizenship, whether they do so to gain an immigration benefit or simply for personal profit."

ICE was assisted in the investigation by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service's Fraud Detection and National Security (FDNS) program.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Yonan, Northern District of Illinois, is prosecuting the case.

Conspiracy to commit marriage fraud and marriage fraud carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Other immigration fraud counts in the indictment carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. If convicted, however, the Court would impose a sentence it deems reasonable under the advisory U.S. Sentencing Guidelines.

The public is reminded that an indictment contains only charges and is not evidence of guilt. The defendants are presumed innocent and are entitled to a fair trial at which the government has the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.