2 charged with arranging sham marriages for immigrants

Tribune reporter

A Des Plaines woman and a Bellwood man have been arrested on charges of trying to help immigrants gain U.S. legal residency by arranging fraudulent marriages in Las Vegas and Illinois in exchange for up to $17,000.

Teresita Zarrabian, 60, and Michael Smith, 41, allegedly arranged at least four fraudulent marriages and tried to arrange a fifth between an immigrant and an undercover, U.S. Attorney's office said Monday in a news release.

Zarrabian, of Des Plaines, and Smith, of Bellwood, were each charged in an indictment with conspiracy to commit marriage fraud, marriage fraud and visa fraud.

Zarrabian, who owns an immigration consultant business in Arlington Heights, was also charged with obstruction of justice after she allegedly tried to persuade a U.S. citizen involved in a fraudulent marriage not to communicate information to law enforcement. 

Both pleaded not guilty in federal court on Thursday and Friday, and were released on their own recognizance, according to federal prosecutors.

Between 2005 and 2012, Zarrabian and Smith recruited U.S. citizens to marry immigrants, authorities said.

Foreign-born nationals sought Zarrabian's help to become legal permanent residents through her immigration consultant business, Zarrabian and Associates, the indictment alleges. 

The immigrants would pay Zarrabian between $5,000 and $15,000 to arrange the sham marriages and help them compete the necessary forms to become legal permanent residents.

Zarrabian paid Smith some of the money she got from her clients. She also promised to pay the U.S. citizens $5,000 for agreeing to the marriages. 

The scheme began when, in 2005, Zarrabian arranged for one of her clients to marry Smith in exchange for $17,000, according to the indictment.

Both defendants arranged for clients to travel to Las Vegas to participate in  fake weddings, complete with wedding photos of the sham couples taken by Zarrabian and Smith, prosecutors said in a news release.

Zarrabian also coached the couples on what they needed to do to make their marriages look real so they would pass muster with immigration officials, such as telling them to say they lived together and shared finances, according to the indictment. 

Each count of marriage fraud carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, while the visa fraud carries a maxium penalty of 10 years in prison.  The obstruction count against Zarrabian carries a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

The scheme was exposed after Zarrabian tried to arrange a fraudulent marriage between a foreign-born national and an undercover agent in 2010, the indictment said. The investigation was conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Chicago Document and Benefit Fraud Task force.


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