A marriage broker pleaded guilty Thursday to running a brazen green card marriage scam, complete with age-appropriate American spouses, Photoshopped wedding albums and cheat sheets to help strangers prepare for interviews with federal agents.
Her lucrative home-spun operation offered the recently acquainted couples a bowl of different-sized wedding rings to chose from before they headed off to tie the knot. Included in her fee was a chauffeured ride to the Harris County courthouse where their nuptials would be carried out, as well as a ride to their immigration interviews.
Ashley “Duyen” Yen Nguyen, 55, a naturalized U.S. citizen in federal custody since May 2019, admitted before U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt she assisted at least 150 Vietnamese immigrants with fake marriages at a cost of up to $80,000 apiece in hopes of they’d gain permanent residency in the United States. She pleaded guilty to one count each of marriage, immigration and mail fraud and one each of money laundering and false statements in tax returns.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Laurence Goldman said in exchange for substantial cooperation with the government prior to sentencing, the Justice Department was prepared to dismiss the remaining charges in two cases against her and would not oppose her request for a downward departure at sentencing. The prosecutor said the government also would not seek denaturalization or oppose her attorney’s forthcoming request that her sentences running concurrently.
Her plea follows those of 54 others, including many of the fake brides and grooms. More than 20 co-defendants have charges pending in the case.
Hoyt asked Nguyen at the in-person hearing whether she’d heard the allegations.
“I hear everything and I agree,” she said.
“Is it true?” the judge asked.
“Yes, it’s true,” she said, repeating the word “guilty” after Hoyt asked her response to each of the five charges.
In addition to arranging other marriages, Nguyen, a trilingual grandmother with no prior criminal record, also personally petitioned officials for legal residency for her own fake spouse, co-defendant Hung Van Nguyen, defendant number 16, who promised to pay $75,000 for the honor.
Her common-law husband was charged with ferrying the couples to court for their on-the-spot unions and to their immigration interviews. Her adult daughter was charged with recruiting former classmates from her Alief high school to be fake spouses in exchange for money.
In some cases Nguyen made arrangements for the American spouses to travel to Vietnam to meet with their soon-to-be husbands or wives. Her business paid for airline tickets and lodging for the travelers and arranged for their passports.
Nguyen’s lawyer told the court Thursday she studied French during college in her native Vietnam. She made a disputed claim to officials early in the investigation that she worked in Houston as a home health aide.
Between August 2013 and April 2019, Nguyen’s wedding business brokered written agreements for dozens of marriages in which immigrants promised to pay $15,000 to $25,000 in installments. In her plea she admitted to handling these monetary exchanges through seven co-defendants with the help of bookkeeper Lan Minh Nguyen. Seven defendants are also accused of helping with the doctored wedding albums and rides to the courthouse.
The massive criminal enterprise also involved 10 recruiters, who helped rustle up spouses, according to court documents.
The case came to light because Nguyen paired the new arrivals with U.S. citizens linked to Houston street gangs. She advertised on Facebook in Vietnamese.
Then federal agents noticed a pattern: immigration petitions from Houston arriving in the same type of envelope with a nearly identical cover letter filled out in a similar cursive script. Each of 30 petitions were deposited at the same Houston post office, according to evidence in the case.
A federal grand jury indicted 96 people in the spring of 2019 in what prosecutors called one of the largest marriage-fraud conspiracies ever documented in the Houston region. More than 200 charges have been brought against dozens of briefly acquainted couples and others helping to facilitate the weddings.
Investigators said the couples submitted documents stating they lived together at addresses where neither the bride nor groom resided. They variously submitted fake letters verifying their employment, fake car and health insurance cards, fake life insurance documents, fake bank statements, fake cell phone and utility bills, fake residential lease and false tax returns.
Ngueyn admitted in her plea that co-defendants Tuyen Thai Huynh and Peter Duc David Truong prepped the hopeful immigrants and their on-the-fly spouses prior to the interviews with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services agents. Specifically, they provided the couples with study guides and coached them about what questions to expect and how best to answer them in hopes of pulling off the deception that it was a love connection and not a purposeful evasion of immigration law.
These two aides also helped snap the photographs of the couple to help them make the case they were bona fide marriages.
Nguyen admitted she failed to report at least $278,170 in income from the scheme, prompting a total amount of tax harm to the United States of $77,888 for the tax year 2018. She agreed to a total forfeiture of the $278,170 as part of her plea deal.
Nguyen came to the U.S. 18 years ago on a fiancé visa. Her lawyer, Marc Carter, previously said that she met her husband at a wedding party in 2000. They married in 2002 and Nguyen and her daughter moved to the U.S. The couple lived together for several years and divorced following an incident where her spouse allegedly harmed Nguyen’s daughter, her lawyer said. However, prosecutors say her marriage was a sham based on documentation that her husband was married to another woman the whole time he was married to her.
The investigation into her business found evidence the operation facilitated 500 to 1,000 sham marriages in addition to those outlined in the case.