LAS CRUCES, N.M. — A naturalized U.S. citizen residing in Albuquerque, New Mexico, pleaded guilty in federal court Monday to a felony marriage fraud charge arising out of a scheme to obtain immigration status for foreign nationals.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) special agents investigated this case.
On April 19, Yi Lee, 44, and his following five co-defendants were indicted and charged with participating in a conspiracy to commit marriage fraud: Chia-Jung Chang, 39; Dan Zheng, 33; Lian Xiang Deng, 42; and Xiao-Yin Le, 50, all Chinese nationals illegally in the United States; and Santiago Aveles, 31, of Las Cruces. The indictment also charged Aveles and Zheng with committing marriage fraud for the purpose of evading the federal immigration laws. Xiao-Yin Le remains a fugitive.
The indictment alleged that from June 2016 through March 2017, the six defendants conspired to obtain immigration status for foreign nationals by committing marriage fraud. The scheme involved having U.S. citizens enter into fraudulent marriages with foreign nationals in return for financial gain. Lee allegedly facilitated the conspiracy by arranging meetings between foreign nationals and U.S. citizens. He also assisted in obtaining marriage licenses, working permits and resident alien cards, commonly known as “green cards,” for the foreign nationals who paid Lee and the U.S. citizens. According to the indictment, Lee allegedly attempted to arrange fraudulent marriages between some co-defendants and undercover law enforcement agents.
During Monday’s proceedings, Lee pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit marriage fraud. In entering his guilty plea, Lee admitted that from January 2016 through May 2017, he recruited U.S. citizens, including Aveles and other individuals who unbeknownst to Lee were undercover law enforcement agents, to enter into fraudulent marriages with foreign nationals to evade U.S. immigration laws.
According to the plea agreement, Lee told the sham marriage participants to document their respective relationships by taking photos together, exchanging messages, opening joint bank accounts, renting properties together and having bills under both participants’ names. Lee also admitted that he assisted these participants with immigration paperwork and in passing off the fake marriages as legitimate during interviews with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
In entering his guilty plea, Lee also admitted that he coordinated a payment schedule for the U.S. citizens participating in the fraudulent marriages, who were to receive payments after taking certain steps, such as obtaining a marriage license, participating in a fraudulent marriage, submitting paperwork, and participating in interviews. Lee further admitted that each U.S. citizen participant was paid about $25,000; and Lee was also paid for his role in the conspiracy in return for citizenship for the foreign nationals.
On Aug. 4, Aveles pleaded guilty to a felony information charging him with conspiracy and marriage fraud. Zheng pleaded guilty and was sentenced Aug. 28. Charges against Deng were dismissed July 25.
At sentencing, Lee and Aveles each face a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000. Sentencing hearings have yet to be scheduled.
Chang has pleaded not guilty to the indictment. Le has yet to be arrested and is considered a fugitive.
Charges in indictments are merely accusations, and all criminal defendants are presumed innocent unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
This case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Dustin C. Segovia and Marisa A. Ong of the U.S. Attorney’s Las Cruces Branch Office.